Monday, October 25, 2010

A Polling Tax

“A man must be both stupid and uncharitable who believes there is no virtue or truth but on his own side.” – Joseph Addison, quoted in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Welcome to the Political Stimulus Program Season for the opinion polling business, otherwise known as 1+ week before Election Day.  As many have said, and will continue to repeat (particularly those on the wrong end of polling data), the only poll that matters takes place on November 2nd.  Those same many will quickly pivot from this statement with the latest catch phrase, “Now, having said that…”** which is immediately followed by a series of statements meant to contradict the fact that the only poll that matters takes place on November 2nd.  Remember, the pollster on your favorite infotainment program has the interpretation of data points that actually are more important than the poll results on Nov. 2nd.  So stay tuned, and be sure to support our sponsors.

** - For a more comedic take on this infectious expression of contradiction, I encourage you to watch Season 7 of Curb Your Enthusiasm, and enjoy as Jerry Seinfeld and Larry David discuss the benefits of such a useful phrase during Jason Alexander’s book signing party for his pamphlet, “Acting Without Acting”.

I for one believe that we deserve more honesty and transparency from the pollsters about the number of variables that impact the colorful and convincing bar graphs, scattergrams and pie charts of findings.  I would like to see the sources of polling data broken into meaningful demographic groups:
  • All people who don’t screen calls to avoid pollsters
  • All people who are home to accept calls vs. those who work and don’t have time to answer questions from strangers
  • All people who have weighed both sides of an issue
  • All people who give a sh*t
  • All people who would vote the same way if they would be required to work and/or sacrifice because of their viewpoint
  • All people who actually heard and understood the question
  • All people who can correctly name the last 5 presidents, in order
  • All people who read books, not just the crawl across the bottom of the screen
The statistics on the screen may be factual.  The interpretation of what those factual statistics mean is pure opinion and conjecture.   The phrasing of a question matters.  The demographics of the respondents matter.  There is a real difference between registered voters and likely voters.  The results of 2 nearly identical polls can vary wildly, and I’d like to hear the commentators admit that.

Accepting the results of fickle polls as the ‘will of the people’, and arguing that no one has the right to thwart the ‘will of the people’, based solely on that poll’s results, is silly.  Seattle Mayor Mike McGinn set up a website to solicit citizen suggestions for improving the city.  The most popular requests were for better mass transit, legalized marijuana and nude beaches.  So much for an informed citizenry helped our elected officials make the tough choices that will improve our society today and into the future.  I would venture a guess that this survey had some fatal flaws.  At least I hope so.

The fact is we are not a democracy.  Even if the polls are well designed and provide a genuine snapshot of the electorate, the majority does not have the absolute power to control or subjugate the minority.  That’s a good thing.  We are a republic, and we should theoretically elect someone smarter than us, that represents our values, to make the hard decisions with an eye out for everyone.  We shouldn’t want someone who agrees with us 100% of the time, which we could never find anyway.  We should elect someone who has good judgment, someone who will fairly decide on issues that we have yet to think about or anticipate.  Someone with the time and the passion to weigh both sides of an issue by examining facts.

Ezra Klein noted recently the other day, "This isn't a very popular statement, but there is a role for elites in public life. Just like I want knowledgeable CEOs running companies and knowledgeable doctors performing surgeries, I want knowledgeable legislators crafting public policy. That's why we have a representative democracy, rather than some form of government-by-referendum."

So let's ignore all the polls and the pollsters and the hidden agendas.  Let's listen for ourselves, read points of view from both sides, and try to make an informed choice.  Polls open next Tuesday.  Now, having said that, be sure to vote.

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