8 October 2004

counting the polls, I mean the votes

I have no idea who will win this election. I find it hard to believe the Man of Steel commands the highest Liberal primary vote since Menzies. Blogic seems to demand that you're a feeble blogger if you don't 'call' the election, but the act is meaningless. Are you saying 'I want X to win' or 'I think X will win' or 'This is only a guess but if I get it right I just might improve my hit rate'? Both here and in the US the polls are contradicting each other, although in Australia they seem to show a clear trend towards the Coalition.

The opiate of the electorate
Opinion polls are the narcotic of choice for the politically active part of the US electorate. Like all narcotics, polls have their uses: they sometimes allow us to function better as political practitioners or even as dreamers, and don't forget that fabulous rush of exhilaration when our candidate shows dramatic gains. But polls are an addiction that also distort our political feelings and actions even as they trivialize political campaigns - and they allow our political and media suppliers to manipulate us ruthlessly. The negatives, as pollsters might say, outweigh the positives.

But let's start with the good things, the stuff that makes people monitor polls in the first place, relying on them to determine their moods, their attitudes and their activities. The centerpiece of all that's good in the polls lies in the volatility of public opinion, a trait that polls certainly discovered. The scientific consensus before World War II had it that political attitudes were bedrock, unchanging values.


The emotional roller-coaster that results from misleading fluctuations in poll results, managed by manipulative media outlets, is the most dramatic symptom of the larger problem. They keep us riveted on the minutiae of the debates (in this case, "presentation and demeanor" are the major foci of the analyses of why Kerry won), while distracting the electorate from the underlying issues that have animated people's discontent with the Bush administration in the first place. Lost in the excitement over the Kerry first-debate victory are his promises of more troops and a more aggressive foreign policy. The rise in the polls makes this belligerent posture acceptable, and even dedicated anti-war activists end up suspending their politics in the excitement over the return of the presidential race to a "statistical dead heat".

Americans' reliance on polls for political validation combines with unscrupulous press coverage of these polls to create a lethal threat to our political sanity and our political effectiveness. Our addiction to polls has done more than enhance the already unacceptable power of the media; it has also redirected our attention and efforts away from policy and toward trivial personality contests at a time when much is at stake

The polls are declining in accuracy in both countries and are being drastically misused by media and the political apparat in both countries. No pollster has ever claimed that a poll predicts an election. All they ever say is that a poll detects how an election held on the date of the poll would come out, subject t the margin of error. Media pay a lot for polls and are not about to announce that their expensive purchase is not predictive at all. Equally politicians favoured by a poll become gung-ho about their 'lead' and those disadvantaged by a poll start mumbling about election day being the only poll that matters.

In polls we trust?
Is Gallup's poll pulling for Bush? The short answer is no; polling experts, even Democratic polling experts, consider Gallup transcendently nonpartisan, one of the survey industry's straightest shooters. Several pollsters say they resent MoveOn's attack on Gallup. But there's a more important side to the kerfuffle over the Gallup Poll, one that lays bare not only legitimate questions over Gallup's methodology but also, more generally, the possible shortcomings of all election polls as well as the mistakes the public and the media make in interpreting them. In addition, there are many reasons, these days, to be broadly suspicious of the truth according to pollsters. Not the least of them is that an increasingly large share of the population fails to respond to pollsters' calls (a phenomenon that may be responsible for Gallup's odd Sept. 17 poll results) and are possibly evading surveyors altogether by using cellphones and caller I.D. systems. In a tight race, these concerns are more consequential; and the polling industry sees no good way around the problems in the long run.

We live, today, in an era of polling ubiquity. In the 2004 election, we'll probably have more polls from more organizations over more topics than we've ever had before, and the public will enjoy far greater access to these polls than in the past. The many polls dictate media coverage and campaign strategy, determining from week to week and day to day how journalists and insiders call the race -- not only who's up and who's down but why, how, where and what they should do about it.

I tend to agree with the idea that the ubiquity of mobile phones skews results. I suspect the young and the poor tend to have mobiles, not landlines, these days and that they are under-represented in polls conducted by landline. I also suspect that people who dislike being rung at home are underrepresented in polls. We won't even speak about Internet junkies who only have a landline.

Labor can probably draw some comfort from antiwar votes in other US allies. The antiwar vote in Spain was there before the Madrid bombing. It had not been detected. The same story happened in Korea. Perhaps the doctors' wives will break for Labor and perhaps they're big among the unusually high number of undecided voters the polls are showing this year. No-one knows which way they will break.

I believe the story of this campaign could and should have been quite different. Labor should not have ignored the USFTA. Labor should not have abandoned Iraq as an issue. Running away from issues might be a good way to hold seats but it's no way to win seats. Alienating voters by supporting Howard's legislative bribe to Family First is not one of the brighter political strategies of recent years. My final preference will go to Labor. My first preference will go to a party that takes human rights seriously.

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