King of All, I'm Surveyed

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As the elections approach, the pollsters will be busy asking questions about the voters’ choices. Polls are inevitable around election time, and they are important. That importance doesn’t necessarily derive from the answers given, but from the very fact that the question is asked. In other words, if a pollster asks you, "Are you going to vote for Goodly Porker?" You might ask yourself, "Who is this Porker? I’ve never heard of him." But you have now! The next day you might read a newspaper survey of 100 registered voters, twelve of whom say they are Porker supporters. This survey will be reported on the local radio station, as well. That night the local TV station will be interviewing people on the street, asking them if they might support Porker. Suddenly, Porker everywhere! One day an obscure peanut farmer, the next — President Porker!

Surveys and polls are also important because of what they don’t ask. Recently I’ve had several pollsters call and ask me if, in a local election, I prefer A to B. My impulse is to say "Neither of the above," and that is what I actually say, if I feel like responding. If I do that, however, the pollster might persist, demanding to know which I’d choose, if I had to choose between the two. I hang up. How is my "vote" recorded? Undecided? No response? We’re never told. The published results of the poll may show percentages favoring A vs those favoring B, but are we told how many didn’t answer, or indicated a preference for C, or D — dark horses? So what do the results actually mean?

Another problem I have with polls is that I often can’t interpret the question. A good example is in this morning’s paper. Under the headline "Snapshot: Missouri" we see a picture of a couple of soldiers. Above the photo we read "Missourians are divided on Iraq." Below it are survey results: "47% say it was worth it to go to war, 46% say it wasn’t worth it." The question, though not stated, obviously must have asked whether the person queried thought it was worth it, or not, to go to war in Iraq. I’m glad I wasn’t asked — I wouldn’t know how to answer that question. What is meant by "worth it?" Going to war isn’t some casual effort, like deciding to water the lawn, or wash the car. It takes planning and preparation. Those who decide to plunge the nation into armed conflict obviously do so for some purpose. They, it seems to me, are the ones to ask, "Was it worth it?" Almost invariably, I think, the answer would be "You bet!" Our rulers (not necessarily the candidates), whatever else they may be, are not stupid. The invasion of Iraq was calculated and deliberate. So if I were asked "Was it worth it?" I wouldn’t know exactly how to respond. A single word answer is expected. If I say "No," I indicate — or so it seems to me — that the architects of the conflict did not achieve their goals, which is unlikely. If I say "Yes," I indicate — or so it seems to me — that in my opinion the war was necessary and justified.

Sometimes pollsters are more specific. The paper designated a "top issue: The Economy," based upon the fact that twenty-four percent of those polled picked the economy as the number one issue in the forthcoming election. But the question wasn’t asked: "What is wrong with the economy, and what needs to be done?" It would be interesting to discover the economic expertise of those who rated the economy the principal issue in the election. Some polls ask, or will ask, whether Bush or Kerry has the better foreign policy. The answers will be given glibly, but if the next question was "Just exactly what IS Bush’s (or Kerry’s) foreign policy, the responses would display a profound degree of confusion and ignorance.

While the defects of polls are many and egregious, and acknowledged by everyone, they are, of course, taken very seriously. Al Gore became, or tried to become, an "alpha male" because polls showed him to be perceived as someone less attractive to voters than that ideal masculine candidate. Let a poll show a candidate to be losing favor with union members, and rest assured, his next few speeches will contain crumbs thrown to the blue-collar voters. The candidates, in other words, position themselves on firm and unyielding principle: let’s see what tomorrow’s polls show. And the polls are based on the opinions of those who know little or nothing about the matter, and couldn’t support their choice in any reasonable, logical, or coherent manner. What a way to decide things!

Come to think of it, the election is simply the ultimate poll. Don’t they call them "polling places?"

Dr. Hein [send him mail] is a retired ophthalmologist in St. Louis, and the author of All Work & No Pay.

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