Storm of political polls obscures election issues

By ALISON MITCHELL

The New York Times

WASHINGTON — And now for a modest proposal: Ban all political polling between now and Election Day.

The first presidential debate last week demonstrated at numbing length the extent to which polling is consuming both politics and journalism. Like human semaphores, Gov. George W. Bush and Vice President Al Gore kept signaling each and every poll-determined swing group that they were on their side.

There were dueling prescription drug plans for the elderly and education plans to woo the suburban soccer moms. Gore’s denunciations of "tax cuts for the wealthiest 1 percent" of Americans were aimed at the lower middle class, while Bush’s rejected "old-style Washington politics" in a bid for independents.

Next came the postdebate blizzard of media polls. MSNBC, with the help of the Republican pollster Frank Luntz, had 36 avowedly undecided voters in the swing state of Missouri using dials to record their reaction to every word of the debate. Fox News and SpeakOut.com were running a "Rate the Debate" forum via the Internet. CBS’ online poll proclaimed Gore the winner by 56 to 42 percent. NBC’s overnight poll gave it to Gore 46 percent to 36 percent. And ABC’s snap poll said that Gore had won 42 percent to 39 percent.

What if polls really were banned? "We’d be spared huge amounts of false explanations for why the candidates are going up and down," said William Kristol, the editor of The Weekly Standard, who was former Vice President Dan Quayle’s chief of staff. And Tom Rosenstiel, the director of the Project for Excellence in Journalism, suggested the nation’s political journalism might improve. "Journalists have abdicated the responsibility of listening to voters in favor of listening to polls as the primary diviner of meaning in political coverage," Rosenstiel said. "We use polls as a crutch and it’s weakening other skills we have."

For years now, polls and focus groups have been creating an echo-chamber effect in politics where candidates all address the same issues and speak with the same poll-tested words until every candidate seems indistinguishable. Clinton even had the audacity in 1996 to take a standard poll question — is the country on the right track? — and turn it into a campaign theme, perhaps in a circular effort to influence the answer to the polling question. "We’re on the right track and we’re not going back," he cheerily thundered on his whistlestop train tour to the Democratic convention.

The emphasis on polling is now so pervasive within political campaigns that that they may be actively deterring original ideas. "It’s always a danger in a democracy that politicians become flatterers instead of leaders," said Kristol. "Pollsters don’t understand that you can move public opinion. For candidates spending too much on polls it’s like driving looking in the rearview mirror. You don’t see what you can change."

News organizations have been equally seduced. These days they are not just running polls, they are now running daily tracking polls measuring every tiny mood swing of the electorate. And the race is being reported on through the prism of the polls.

All spring when Bush was ahead in the surveys, his campaign was being called masterful, his victory inevitable, his strategists confident and in command. By August, Sen. Phil Gramm, a fellow Texas Republican, announced, "I’m expecting our governor to win by maybe double digits."

Gore was seen as wooden and, horror of horrors, as poll driven. Many thought he was fading from the race. Yet come September, as the polls shifted, Bush became the hapless one, his malapropisms fatal and his aides reactive, while Gore had metamorphosed into a bold risk taker gleaming with a winner’s confidence. "I’ve called it for Gore," said Lawrence O’Donnell, a contributing editor for New York magazine, on the "Hardball" television show. "I think he’s unstoppable at this point."

Andrew Kohut, the director of the Pew Research Center for People and the Press, said that journalists this year were scouring polls to find backup for the narratives they wanted to write rather than using them to learn about the nuances of public opinion. "There are so many polls now that if you look around you can find something that underscores what herd journalism thinks is happening," Kohut said.

He noted that an astute student of polls in the spring, instead of ordaining Bush, would have recognized that public opinion was not fixed. "You would have seen how much volatility there was," Kohut said, "that you can’t trust this Bush lead."

If there is one bright spot this year, it may be that the voters themselves almost seem like they want to confound everyone. Just when Gore looked as if he was out of the race, the public swung his way. When Bush appeared in danger of permanently falling behind, he caught up. "People are contrarian in a certain way," Kristol said, celebrating the twists and turns of this year’s race. "They keep wanting to do the opposite of what the polls tell them they want to do. The voters are less susceptible to herd mentality than the pundits."

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