Thursday, May 8, 2008

Do Polls Steer The Voters?



It's hard to go for even a day without seeing the latest political polls. I often wonder how they change so much from day to day. Why did so many people who thought that Candidate A was a jerk yesterday think that he's okay today? And then there are those "exit polls" that are taken after people vote. In this country, voting is probably considered more private than sex. Sometimes people don't feel like telling their children, their spouses, or their best friends whom they vote for. But they're perfectly willing to tell a stranger with a clipboard?


Everybody knows that clever pollsters can word the questions to force the results to be just about anything they want. Who is not going to say "yes" to the question, "Do you want a President who is dedicated to keeping this country safe?" Who won't say "no" to, "Do you want a leader who just cares about rich people?"


Knowing their manipulative nature, why are so many people willing to participate in political polls? I'm sure some people just want to be nice and help the pollsters. Others probably take pride in being part of the process. I suspect that still others do it because it makes them feel important. When they see that 63% published in the paper tomorrow or on television tonight, they can call their friends and tell them that they are part of that 63%. In their eyes, they're just a little bit famous. They're like the people who hold up signs for the camera at ball games or wave outside morning news shows.


Regardless of the reasons why people participate, polls are getting more and more pervasive. They're conducted not just by news organizations, but by candidates' campaigns. Imagine how those admittedly biased pollsters struggle over every word they put in every question. That's why I think manipulative polls are only going to grow. Soon polls may be used as cruel political propaganda without even mentioning names. For example:


Which person would make a better President:


_____Someone who gets confused about the names of Mideast countries and sects?


Or


___Someone who can recite the Greek alphabet backwards?


But they won't have to be that mean or blunt. They're more likely to try for less direct attacks and, at the same time, spread false rumors: For example:


Hypothetically speaking, would you rather vote for:


___Someone who may still have secret ties to a crazed pastor?


Or


___ Someone who has a very sweet daughter?


By using the phrase "hypothetically speaking," they can claim they weren't really referring to anyone specific. Another example is:


Hypothetically speaking, are you more likely to vote for:


____Someone who will say anything to get elected?


Or


___Someone who is a war hero?


The poll of the future might also be used to minimize a candidate's baggage. Let's say, a candidate had once been involved in a minor financial scandal. A question might be:


Are you more likely to vote for:


____Someone who had a lapse of judgment many years ago?


Or


____A serial killer?


Of course, the poll doesn't say that the opponent is actually a serial killer, but by bringing up such a heinous crime, it minimizes the candidate's scandal. And maybe it does get at least a few people thinking, "I didn't know that other guy was a serial killer. Maybe I shouldn't vote for him."


A danger with political polls is that people like to back a winner. Voters enjoy being able to say after the election that they voted for the person who won. That's why they don't show the results on TV until the polls have closed. If a poll says that Candidate A just moved ahead of Candidate B, there are people who will climb on the bandwagon and vote for Candidate A just because the poll says he or she is ahead. When that happens, the poll turns from being a way to measure public opinion to a device that forms public opinion.


So how would you answer my poll question which is no less fair than many we see these days:


When it comes to political polls, do you think they are:


_____ A perfect tool we should all be grateful for?


Or


____ The cause of much poverty in the world and the greatest threat that we face today?



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