The Numbers Game

I've been wanting to weigh in for a while now on the negative – indeed, the downright dangerous – impact that public opinion polls are having on our democracy, but have held off until the numbers turned in John Kerry's favor lest I be accused of following in the footsteps of my Greek ancestors by killing the messenger.

But now that the post-debate figures have swung Kerry's way, let me jump on the chance to say: It's time to pull the plug on the media's obsession with treating polling results as if Moses had just brought them down from the mountaintop.

Over the last month, media coverage of the presidential race has been driven by wildly vacillating poll numbers. For example, Newsweek has Kerry going from 11 points down in its Sept. 4 poll to 2 points up in this week's poll, while Gallup went from Kerry trailing by 14 points on Sept. 16 to dead even on Oct. 4.

Of course, at the same time that Gallup had Bush 14 points ahead, the Pew Center poll had the race all tied up; and now that Gallup has Kerry pulling even with Bush, Pew has the president holding a 7 point advantage.

But no one in the media says, "Hey, wait a minute. What's going on here? Both of you can't be right!" They just dutifully report the latest numbers and set out to explain what they "mean" without any attempt to account for the huge disparities.

After all, for the big swings in the Newsweek and Gallup polls to be true, close to 16 million voters would have had to change their minds. In four weeks' time. Not even J-Lo is that fickle.

Sure, Kerry was strong in the first debate and Bush was shaky—but for that many voters to switch sides that fast, Kerry would have had to deliver Osama Been Forgotten's head on a silver platter during his closing statement.

And, unless I really spaced out, that didn't happen.

The dirty little secret of the polling industry is that, all too often, its findings are based on flawed methodology and dubious assumptions.

Take that mid-September Gallup poll that found Kerry had plummeted 14 points behind Bush. It sure made it seem as if Kerry were as good as done for, right? And that's the way it was widely reported by everybody, especially Gallup's media partners, USA Today and CNN. The problem is, the poll was absurdly weighted in favor of GOP voters, assuming that on Election Day 40 percent of those casting a ballot will be Republicans and only 33 percent will be Democrats—a turnout breakdown that will only happen in Karl Rove's dreams.

Democrats have accounted for 39 percent of those voting in the last two presidential elections, while Republicans accounted for no more than 35 percent in either 1996 or 2000.

It's like they say about computers: garbage in, garbage out. With polls, it's faulty data in, faulty findings out.

Yet polls are now firmly entrenched as the lingua franca of political analysis. Dissecting the latest numbers is so much easier than actually, y'know, digging for the truth. Cable shows love turning the campaign into a horse race. And it's so much easier if you can parade fatuous numbers as hardcore facts to prove Who's Hot and Who's Not.

Trouble is, these "snapshots of the electorate" quickly harden into portraits, and, in the blink of an eye, guesstimates become the conventional wisdom.

And in politics, as in sports, everybody loves a winner. Thus, as soon as the pollsters delivered Bush his hyper-inflated post-convention bounce, many of the Democratic faithful started seeing the ghosts of Mike Dukakis and Fritz Mondale lurking around every corner. By the same light, now that Bush has supposedly hit the polling skids, the shadow of his Dad's one-and-done presidency has begun to darken the GOP base's doorstep.

These kinds of poll-induced mood swings can have a profound impact on a campaign. The sense that a candidate is tanking – or on a roll – can make the difference between a potential donor making a contribution or keeping his checkbook in his pocket. It can also tip the scales for a would-be volunteer deciding whether to give up more free time to go door-to-door registering voters or work the phones to get out the vote.

I saw firsthand the effect that manufactured momentum has as I traveled around the country speaking. Again and again last month, I was told by Kerry supporters that the gloomy poll numbers hanging over their man's campaign had made them less likely to donate their time and money.

This is how polls morph from meaningless farce into potential tragedy—self-fulfilling prophesies that end up making more likely whatever results they predict while, at the same time, undermining the democratic process.

But despite mounting evidence that poll results can't be trusted, pundits and politicians continue to treat them with a reverence ancient Romans reserved for chicken entrails, ignoring the fact that pollsters are finding it increasingly difficult to get people to talk to them. Thanks to answering machines, caller ID and telemarketers, polling response rates have plunged to 30 percent—and lower. It's pretty hard getting a good read on the public's opinion when people keep hanging up on you.

Plus, pollsters never call cell phones—of which there are now close to 170 million. And even though most cell phone users also have a hard line, a growing number don't—especially young people, an underpolled and hard-to-gauge demographic that could easily turn out to be the margin of difference in this year's race.

Most important, no pollster, no matter how polished her crystal ball, really knows who are going to be the likely voters this November and how many of the unlikely ones are going to turn out at the polls.

Our media mavens obviously know all this, but choose to ignore it. Coming clean about polls would mean taking them off the front pages and sticking them where they belong—back among the horoscopes and comic strips.

And then what would the chattering class chatter about?


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