48% for Taco Bell; 52% for Invading Iraq

Did you know that polling is illegal in some countries? In Russia, published polls are not allowed before an election; the same is true in Nicaragua. In Belarus, polls are illegal in general -- but then again, so is everything else. Still, how interesting!

I think we take our survey freedoms for granted. Nothing else can explain the appallingly low quality of our polling. Polling in this country has degenerated almost entirely into a tool for describing consumer behavior, where the goal of almost every well-funded survey is to make a numerical determination about the strength of X product vs. Y product in the general marketplace.

The brand names might be Taco Bell and Jack in the Box, they might be Democrats and Republicans; the methodology is, to a degree at once damning and hilarious, exactly the same. Take a look at the press releases for two of the top two polls conducted by Zogby last week:

1. Coke Is It: Americans Choose Coca Cola over Pepsi by 47% to 28%; 'Real Thing' Leads Every Demographic; 'Choice of a New Generation' Unpopular With Younger Consumers -- New Zogby Consumer Profile Finding
2. No Bounce: Bush Job Approval Unchanged by War Speech; Question on Impeachment Shows Polarization of Nation; Americans Tired of Divisiveness in Congress -- Want Bi-Partisan Solutions -- New Zogby Poll
The degree to which polling methodology reflects the bias of the interested (and usually commissioning) parties is seldom noted when the polls are cited by reporters. For instance, pre-election polls are almost always presented in their, final, less embarrassing, airbrushed form -- e.g., 51 percent for Bush, 49 percent for Kerry -- when the actual numbers are more like 26-24 percent, if you include nonvoters.

Respondents, when quizzed, about, say, their favorite fast-food restaurant, are never asked the obvious cross-reference questions. Thus you never see press releases that read like this: "74 percent of Americans who cannot climb two flights of stairs without gasping for breath said that McDonald's was their favorite fast-food destination, while a surprising 47 percent of respondents who 'expect to be dead within weeks' said that the Wendy's Big Classic was their 'favorite sandwich.'"

Our prominent polling agencies almost never take it upon themselves to actually pose a new question. Instead, they almost always content themselves with recording the answers to a question that in some very public way has already been asked -- usually in the form of a choice presented by the media. Do you prefer Friends to Seinfeld? Is Michael Jackson guilty or innocent? Are you for or against the invasion of Iraq?

Regarding that last question, numerous polls conducted last week both before and after George Bush's bizarre Iraq address made headlines across the country. The biggest was a CNN/Gallup/USA Today poll, widely rereported under headlines like, "Support for Iraq War Plummets." Its key result was a number indicating that 53 percent of Americans now thought the war was a "mistake."

That single, solitary, unexpressive number -- 53 percent -- reveals the utter poverty of the polling system. It's a number that ought to infuriate people on both sides of the issue. Remember, before the war began, opinion surveys regularly showed support levels for the invasion running at between 70 and 80 percent.

Here is how Steven Kull, a pollster for American Public on International Issues, summed up the nature of Iraq support before the war. In an interview with the San Francisco Chronicle on April 1, 2003, Kull said he believed that 40 percent of Americans were firmly behind the war, 20 percent firmly opposed it, and the remaining 40 percent supported it "either out of deference to the president or a sense of patriotism." He characterized the stance of the latter group as "pretty soft."

Well, no shit. Just as Kull predicted, the 40 percent firm-support number has remained an absolute constant since the beginning of the conflict. In the CNN/Gallup poll last week, that same 40 percent said they remained firmly in support of U.S. forces remaining in Iraq.

Clearly, it's that "pretty soft" other 40 percent that's slipping. Those are the people I have a problem with, and it is with regard to those people that our polling system failed us two years ago and continues to fail today.

It seems fairly obvious that, in the course of the last few years, roughly 25-30 percent of the country has been influenced by the steady issue of news about increased violence and instability in Iraq. Apparently, a large percentage of Americans who supported the war two years ago have since become freaked out by the fact that, surprise, surprise, people are dying.

Which invites the question: If these people can't handle a few bad headlines, what exactly was their level of commitment to begin with? Pre-war polls, confined to the standard Coke-Pepsi either-or formula, didn't tell us much about that.

Maybe if the polls back then had been conducted differently, we might have had different results. Imagine a March 2003 poll that posed the following questions:

  • Would you yank your son out of college and send him to die for this bullshit?

  • Would you yourself be willing to give your life for this cause? If yes, grab your shit; there's a bus outside.

Those should be the only kinds of polls we allow, when it comes to questions of war. I mean, who the hell are these people who changed their minds once the news started to turn sour? There are only two explanations: They're either unbelievable cowards, or they didn't think it through. In either case, if there were any justice, they would all be rounded up and dumped buck-naked on the streets of Fallujah.

What's most infuriating about this Iraq war is the degree to which it represents the worst excesses of our highly developed consumer reflexes. America in the age of reality TV is in love with making its choice, casting its vote. It has been encouraged to enjoy a narcissistic thrill in observing the consequences of its consumer choices, often portrayed in TV shows as catastrophic or indescribably dramatic.

Disgraced fat nerd has nervous breakdown after being voted off American Idol. Plain girl rushes to plastic surgeon after being bounced from the The Bachelor. Aloof weirdo voted into metaphorical death after failing to properly conform on the set of Survivor.

Get that loser off the show, he has no voice; bachelor, choose the blonde, the brunette's nose is too big. When we vote, we are extraordinarily impatient and exacting and judgmental, like movie reviewers; we vote like customers who know the law says they are always right.

In fact, the haughty self-importance of the median poll respondent has become so axiomatic that it is now often built in to the polling process, where it's not uncommon to see surveys built around slavish questions like the following: "If candidate X were to bend over and kiss your ass, how likely would you be to vote for him?"

But for all the poll respondent's smug airs, he only talks tough when he's in a crowd, and shielded by anonymity, identified only by his number. I've seen this myself as a journalist. Interview someone on the street, and he loves to hold forth and waste your time giving you his great opinion. But ask for his name for the record, and he runs away like a bitch.

A nation that indulges in anonymous casual cruelties like The Swan should not be consulted in the same manner before a war. In matters of life and death, stand up and be counted -- by name, swearing on the blood of your children. What kind of country goes to war whispering "yes" into a telephone?

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