Polling Inaccurate, Says New Poll
Polled Were Asked the Wrong Question
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,
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.
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:
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
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
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.
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.'"
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
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."
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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:
you yank your son out of college and send him to die for
you yourself be willing to give your life for this cause?
If yes, grab your shit; there's a bus outside.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?"
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.
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?