Printer Friendly Page Election Polls Judged ~ #43

Election Polls Judged –
No Redeeming Social or Public Value ~ #43

By Alan F. Kay, PhD
© 2004, (fair use with attribution and copy to authors)
Nov. 29, 2004

The 2004 election cycle led to a record number of polls by politicians, financial backers, campaign advisors and mainstream media.  For commercial pollsters, not only did wallets get fatter, but career opportunities blossomed.  Many became media pundits and some became major-candidate inner-circle advisors.  Exciting perk-loaded, vaulting career visions danced in campaign pollsters' eyes and, then too, vanished when top candidates lost.  

Here is what commercial pollsters do to enhance their careers.  Each election cycle, they sell candidates on re-evaluations of the clout of perennial big players like the National Rifle Association and AARP as well as on reviews of the political muscle of favored or dis-favored groups -- trial lawyers, movie moguls, giant industries like Big Pharmaceuticals or once-Big Tobacco.  They also sell candidates and the media on stories of newly anointed demographic sectors as the key to knowing who has the inside track.  These sectors were "white males" in 1994; "soccer moms" in 1996; "waitress moms" in 1998; "white, married, working moms (WMWM)" in 2000, "office park dads" in 2002 and "NASCAR fans" in 2004. 

These sectors are a little too small to accurately gauge their clout as demographic questions by cross-tabulating against poll questions.  Promoters of the importance of studying such sectors take advantage of this difficulty by writing articles with catchy anecdotal stories that make their case.  They reduce dull polling statistics to lively flesh-and-blood real people, and supplement these stories with supportive, delightful and challenging opinions from an impressive variety of the well-known and well-credentialed.  Some media, like the Atlantic Monthly and Harper’s, love these articles, particularly if their editors have a low opinion of the public's understanding. 

Commercial political players convince themselves and their sponsors that all this intellectual churning is necessary and desirable.  To understand what is going on, you may have to look at their findings and read between the lines.  No close campaign ever stopped being optimistic, even as the polls suggest the candidate is slipping into oblivion. As long as campaign funds are still available, no advisor, even privately, can say something like, "OK boss, you did your best, but it wasn't good enough.  So let's just drop out now."  Quitting is not what advisors get big bucks for.  When ad money is still available, among all the possibilities that have been churned up, advisors can always find some other cards to play for a miraculous turn-around and no one can dismiss all the many possibilities.     

Money talks real loudly in presidential races.  Now the price-tag is heading up to a half a billion dollars for each of the two major party campaigns including primaries, and double that if you also include Senate and House candidate elections.  The billion dollars spent to get a president elected pays off handsomely.  At least $20 billion goes into the coffers of large corporations, whole industries, and some professions by way of a combination of targeted tax cuts, eased regulation, and relaxed restrictions on entering new markets.  The billion required for the next campaign contribution is a small sum to pay for those benefits.  

Below are seven good reasons why the two major parties in recent years have not been more than ±2% apart (52% to 48%).  If voting and vote-counting irregularities are absent, the spread is probably closer than ±1% (51% to 49%).  The following seven developments, not only divide the country almost exactly in half, they attack our national well-being, and threaten to subvert and nullify electoral democracy:

  1. The seemingly inevitable corruption of official campaign financing reforms.

  2. The corruption of post-election governance as a result of increasing strong-arm, smiling-face campaign fund raising.

  3. Newly available computerized optimization software perfecting the art of gerrymandering so that many districts and states can be locked-in for one party or the other.

  4. The near total lock-out of third party candidates by the steady, over-the-years machinations of the two (major) party leaders, assisted by elected officials and the mainstream media, culminating in total effective electoral control of Congress members and elected administration officials by the two parties.

  5. The shortening of information feedback loops during the campaign (including more accurate, quick, sophisticated polling aimed at manipulating voters) employed by both parties to determine how to use their enormous campaign funds to best advantage.  The outcomes in contested elections tend toward statistical ties producing disarray and contention.

  6. The mainstream media perceived need to accommodate, through editorializing and news reporting, high officials who (a) illegally or immorally decide to keep secrets from the public and (b) grant access and interviews to supportive reporters, editors, anchors, and moguls and punish those who are uncooperative, while rewarding supporters with beneficial regulatory relief.  These relationships have resulted in the nearly-unreported gutting of the Fairness Doctrine and the astonishing concentration of media ownership.

  7. Obsolete, undemocratic features of the U.S. Constitution, as amended – including the role of the electoral college.

Pundits hardly critique the campaign issues anyway, now.  They critique the ads.  Most of the billion dollars of a presidential campaign goes to TV ads (illegal in most democracies where the airwaves belong to the public!).  With this fixation on media advertising, changes occur more frequently on a daily basis than any other news stories bring.  Virtually all of the well-known polling organizations are reasonably correct even when election horse-race poll findings bounce up and down, unlike non-horserace polls, several points daily.  

Confusion rises further as the result of the several different ways to ask the question of who you'll vote for, on the basis of:

"If the election were held today", or "When election day rolls around?"  With or without the vice president named?

With or without any minor candidates included?

For polling the whole country,  or state-by-state, or region by region, or  blue states vs. red states?

There is strong bias of some (and some bias of all) of the media and there is clearly bias of the candidates and their backers favoring – who else? – themselves.  Does bias in the design, conduct, or analysis of an election horse-race survey move the public more toward increasing or more toward shrinking the support for a candidate?  What is the feedback effect on polls showing those candidates that have greater public support on a given day?   It is not hard to see that there are some circumstances where the feedback is positive and some where it is negative.

When a credible, but biased organization claims that, based on some new poll, support for their candidate has just risen, if the "bandwagon effect" is dominant, then support for the candidate from "undecided" voters would increase.  If a "never give up" or "fight even harder" effect is dominant among those favoring the candidate's opponent, the opponent might get more support.  If a candidate favored by a voter who believes that the favored candidate is going to win, the voter may be less likely to bother to take the time to vote.  Which of these effects dominate and under what circumstances?  No one really knows, perhaps because the effect is so small that it is lost among all other campaign battle developments that effect support for candidates.  That is what I tend to believe.  Perhaps that is why most pollsters, biased or not, really try hard not to bias questions, a practice which if it confused anybody might likely be themselves.   

A little-known, but important, side effect of the churning of election horserace polls is the large number of confusing and enigmatic findings from the avalanche of political polling, especially comparing it with polling on what the people want for governance, (i.e. public-interest polling).  As analyzed in recent "Polling Critic" columns, public-interest polling can find subgroup emergence truly and significantly effecting the next election.  Columns Nos. 42, 41 and 35 (posted six months before the 2004 election) uncovered what became the growth and politicizing of the religious right.  

All of these considerations add up to, "Don't ask the 'Polling Critic' how to fix election polling!"   For years I've said, "Allow the people to vote on issues, not on candidates."  That idea has seemed totally impractical until a couple of years ago, when I came up with a multi-step plan that could achieve "voting on issues by the people," called sortition, that could happen even if the federal government, from the president on down, opposed it. For the detailed plan see: #14 Colleague Concept, #14.1 Appendix A, #14.2 Electing Members of US House of Representatives by Sortition.

>>> 2.5  The Polling Critic

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