The Sixty Percent Solution

"Polls are tricky," announced Henry Hyde on "Meet the Press" recently. "If you ask 500 people in Times Square one question, and then ask the same question to 500 people in Topeka, you might get different answers."Indeed you might. Perhaps the chairman of the House Judiciary Committee will soon be reminding the country's meteorologists that Topeka figures to get more tornado warnings next year than midtown Manhattan.Then again, Hyde is hardly alone in denigrating the constant temperature-taking of modern American politics. With apologies to Mark Twain, polling is like the weather: everyone complains about it, but no one does anything to stop it. In 1998, as our seemingly endless presidential scandal has blended into the mid-term election season, polls are everywhere. And so are their critics, especially Hyde's Republican colleagues, who have been energetically lambasting public-opinion surveys for months. Take, for instance, media-friendly House Judiciary Committee member Bill McCollum on the subject of impeachment hearings: "We are determined to do this fairly and objectively and not [to] listen to the polls at all." Newt Gingrich, for his part, has opined that the public would be "horrified" if Congress "enacted a grotesque version of justice based on the latest poll or talk show." And Republican whip Tom DeLay has opted for the blunt approach: "I think, frankly, the polls are a joke."As well he would. The President, after all, has survived an unprecedented string of embarrassments this year, in large part because of his astonishingly consistent job-approval ratings. Think of it as Bill Clinton's Sixty Percent Solution: he can survive anything as long as those numbers hold.And hence the proliferation of attacks on the polls by Clinton's opponents. But one doesn't need to be a die-hard Democrat to find value in polling. Unlike most elements of our political culture, polls have provided us with a refreshing brevity, not to mention a focus on resolving the presidential scandal -- qualities sorely missing from both Congress and the news networks. It's easy enough to criticize our obsession with the polls. For that very reason, though -- and unfashionable as it may be -- polling deserves to be defended.To be fair, it is not just ornery Republicans who have been at odds with the polls. Most ranking members of the punditocracy, expectantly covering the downfall of the President for much of the year, have been similarly stymied. (That noise you hear is Tim Russert complaining about the public's refusal to "move" in the direction of impeachment.) The Washington Post editorialized last week about the emptiness of "poll-driven" politics, while on the left, Christopher Hitchens, a long-time critic of polling, recently instigated a shouting match with Democratic pollster Mark Mellman on MSNBC's "The Big Show." According to Hitchens, "People don't take polls in order to find out what is going on. They take polls in order to influence what's going on." And: "The questions are designed to evoke idiotic responses." Evidently, taking the pulse of the American public isn't just spin doctoring, it's malpractice.When it comes to public opinion surveys, everybody's a critic, although for different reasons. In the case of the Republicans, though, the high-minded protestations ring hollow due to the great faith they place in tabulating public opinion elsewhere. Consider the new series of Republican ads attacking Clinton; as the New York Times reported, the House Speaker himself gave them the go-ahead, but only after the spots had been reviewed by some three dozen focus groups. Nor are Republicans afraid of appealing to public opinion; it was the basis on which they justified releasing the videotape of the president's grand jury testimony. As it turned out, the strategy didn't work; Clinton's job-approval rating promptly took one of its familiar bounces.There is, however, a more fundamental criticism of polling -- best summarized by Hitchens' contention, echoed by many others -- that the media's emphasis on polls is "an increasingly dangerous substitute for democracy." If we assume that rational discourse is a cardinal element of democracy, then polls do us damage by reducing complicated positions to a simplistic set of choices. The answers pollsters provide for us serve as intellectual constraints: when we respond to a survey, our qualifying statements and misgivings disappear, only to re-emerge as the red slice in a USA Today pie chart.This position sounds good in theory. But in practice, people arguing for it seem as if they've ingested too much Habermas and not enough CNN. In a culture where the political discourse consists almost exclusively of partisan sound-bites, polling is hardly a shallow substitute for an otherwise serious discussion. If anything, our politicians and Sunday-morning talking heads have been determinedly trying to eliminate all nuance from their debates. The pro-impeachment position has become an iron-clad syllogism: the President, it is asserted, broke the law, which he swore to uphold. Breaking the law can be grounds for impeachment. Thus we must hold impeachment hearings. Meanwhile, few Democrats in Congress have been willing or able to address the tactics of the special prosecutor with great insight. "Ken Starr," remarked Joseph Biden over the summer, "is not a box of chocolates." And people say the polls are too simple.Instead, it is the basic series of weekly poll questions about the Lewinsky affair that has revealed how a large portion of the public holds a more subtle view of Bill Clinton than almost any pundit does: he may not be admirable, but his affair and prevarications should not keep him from being president. This is not a terribly complicated idea -- although it is usually referred to as being "Continental -- but its status as a revelation has only underlined the utter lack of serious discussion on the part of our politicians and commentariat.Of course, the major polls can have meaningless or silly questions. One recent CBS survey asked if respondents thought Clinton had "American morals," leaving undefined what they might be. Newsweek has asked if Clinton should "consider" resigning -- as if that settles anything -- and Fox News polls are often frivolous, frequently asking if the Clintons will get divorced, or if Bill and Monica will wind up together in the long run (only 6 percent think this is "very likely"). Perhaps Hitchens noticed this last one when complaining about evoking "idiotic responses."When Hitchens speaks of pollsters attempting to "influence what's going on," he's got a point if he's referring to polls that are engineered by party consultants like Stan Greenberg and Frank Luntz, and often leaked or officially released to the press when the results fit the party's agenda. But these are a different breed entirely from the independent polls conducted by the major news organizations and outlets like Gallup. It's these independent polls that usually create actual new events that go beyond the inside-baseball banter on "Capital Gang," but it's hard to see how Hitchens' objections apply here. If he means that the questions being asked by pollsters frame issues narrowly, and are intended to shape public response in a certain way, it could equally be argued that the polling being done about the President is not especially leading, since many queries about the scandal concern its outcome: whether or not Clinton should resign, or what course of action Congress should take. In these cases, the answers provided are not profound intellectual constraints: if you think Clinton should be censured, of course you won't be able to explain your reasoning in a poll, but your opinion will be fairly represented, since censure exists in clear contrast to the other options (impeachment, resignation, and so on).To be sure, pollsters do have some sway over the results we see. An ABC News/Washington Post poll taken in the days after the President's televised confession of August 17th charted Clinton's "favorability" rating -- not quite the same as job approval, mind you -- first at 39 percent, then 56 percent, and then 45 percent. After further examination, though, the pollsters attributed the shift to "sequence bias." Meaning, in this case, that respondents were far more likely to answer positively to a series of questions about Clinton, culminating with his "favorability" rating, if they begin on the topic of the economy, rather than the subject of his personal life.The news networks rarely discuss such matters when presenting poll results on the air, meaning that dramatic changes in the polls, packaged as "news," might just be due to technical considerations instead of a shift in prevailing attitudes. However, paranoiacs should take comfort in remembering that pollsters themselves have a vested interest in using consistent methods. Their prime goal throughout the Lewinsky scandal has been to measure the changes in opinion after each of the many "events" (i.e., the release of the Starr Report) which were regarded within the Beltway as being potential disasters. It's unlikely that any pollsters would use this as an opportunity for experimentation.It is still possible to argue that, sophisticated techniques or not, polls exert too much influence the moment they are reported as "news." Perhaps. And perhaps pollsters do try to influence what people think. If so, the poll-takers have been doing a terrible job of it in 1998. Sixteen consecutive Washington Post surveys since January have given Clinton a job-approval rating ranging from 59 percent to 69 percent. The constancy of public support for Clinton has even inverted the presumed relationship between the polls and the evening news. As Paul Friedman, the executive producer of "World News Tonight" said, in justifying continued coverage of the scandal: "If I believed what people said in polls, I'd have a totally different newscast."Ultimately, the question of the "influence" held by the polls is not useful to us, because critics such as Hitchens can't decide whether the American people are smart (and hence not adequately represented in polls), or not, in fact, very bright (and thus unduly influenced by polls and news coverage in general). Which just goes to show that it doesn't take a pollster to frame an issue too narrowly. Americans may get much of their information from the media, but that doesn't mean they accept it at face value.I prefer to regard the public as being conflicted about what it thinks, and find it rewarding to search the polls in their entirety for examples of this. For instance, after watching Clinton's grand jury testimony, only 7 percent of all respondents in a CBS survey said they thought better of Clinton, while 29 percent said they thought worse of him. However, in the same poll, the president's favorability rating went from 37 percent to 44 percent, and his job approval moved from 59 percent to 68 percent. A paradox? Probably. But then, it's precisely these kind of contradictions that polls illuminate.Consider as well the fact that most people surveyed say they want the presidential scandal to be over, even as network news coverage of the saga boosts ratings and the Starr Report becomes a best-seller. Does this mean people are disingenuous when they respond to polls, or are they just voyeuristic, on the one hand, and legitimately disgusted on the other? Contrary to their reputation, the polls don't simplify the things they survey. If you know how to read them, they add layers of ambiguity and unresolved tension. In the end, perhaps, that's the real reason the polls infuriate so many people.Peter Dizikes is a freelance writer living in New York. He writes about politics and culture.


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