Taking America’s Temperature

PrintPrintEmailEmailA polltaker’s lot is perhaps least enviable when his profession is dealt with by historians of presidential elections. Almost all of them give prominent play to polling’s two most celebrated disasters: 1936, when a respected national magazine’s straw poll forecast a loss for Franklin D. Roosevelt, and 1948, when Harry Truman confounded almost universal predictions of defeat and overcame Thomas E. Dewey. These sensational landmarks obscure the fact that in the 14 other elections between 1936 and 1996 no such major mistakes were made. Where is the respect for a batting average of .875? It’s as if every book about modern ships and their builders featured a frontispiece of the Titanic going down.

Besides, as public opinion researchers —their preferred term—would be quick to note, those experimental days of 50 and 60 years ago were the dinosaur era of scientific opinion surveys. Target populations are now meticulously sliced and diced into such categories as race, ethnicity, age, income, gender, residence, employment, and education. Precisely focused questions are asked of sample groups that are as nearly as possible a cross section of society, and the answers are endlessly reshuffled by computers for the examination of statisticians. Institutes on university campuses use the results not merely to forecast elections but to track changes in America’s demography, economy, and culture, and their analyses appear in academic quarterlies.

Operating alongside these flagships of social science research are polling teams more pragmatically focused. The major news organizations have their own surveys that provide a continuous flow of “reaction” stories: What do people think of a candidate’s latest proposal, newest response to criticism, choice of assistants, friends? “Tracking polls” keep almost daily score on how he (or she) would fare if the election were to be held immediately. When it actually takes place, “exit polls” allow early projection of winners and losers —and spoil the traditional fun of waiting in suspense before the TV set for the late-hour outcome.

Meanwhile, polls privately commissioned by the candidates’ consultants keep tabs on the hot-button issues of a given moment, the standings in crucial districts, the responses of crucial voter groups to new developments. Almost hour by hour, at the pace of a high command studying situation maps in the middle of a battle, they use the data to plot strategy—and sometimes as weapons in themselves. Poll results that show their clients doing well are rushed into press-release form; those that do not are sequestered. Some managers even create phony polls that use loaded questions to force outcomes that will look good for their side.

The measurement of public opinion is something of a science, but it is also big business, a technique-sharing twin of the market research that drives our consumer culture. Like any powerful enterprise, it has created an army of critics and defenders. The naysayers’ bill of indictment is a long one. They charge that frequent polling trivializes the electoral process by emphasizing who’s ahead—the horserace, not the stakes. Furthermore, polls narrow democratic choice by scaring away potential financial backers from little-known candidates who falter in early predictions. Election-eve polls and election-night projections keep many voters at home, convinced that their vote is either futile or superfluous if the man or woman of their choice is far behind or unbeatably in front. (Some countries even forbid the publication of poll results immediately before the election or of projections until the last voting booth is closed. Efforts to do this in the United States run head-on into the stout resistance of the networks claiming the shelter of the First Amendment.) Moreover, issue-oriented polls encourage the platitudinous candidate to follow, rather than lead, to take his cues from “the data” and support shortsighted but temporarily popular dogmas. In the end, a bored and oversaturated public turns in disgust from the whole election process.

The polltakers see it differently. Democracy is about enacting the will of the people, they say, and democracy is the healthier for every expert revelation of what the people think and desire. Kathleen A. Frankovic, for example, the director of polling at CBS News, puts it this way: “Polls both inform and elevate the level of public discussion… . reporting public opinion polls tells readers and viewers that their opinions are important.” One might think that elections themselves do that, but she insists that “pollbashing,” as she calls it, is “an antidemocratic fix, an elitist solution … a surrender to the notion that only some people’s opinions matter.”

The effort to determine and control what we call “public opinion” hardly existed for the first half-century of in- dependence, when the domination of political discussion by a small, educated elite was taken for granted. A government responsive to popular sentiment was not at all what the framers Of the Constitution had in mind. As one of them put it at the convention, giving the choice of President to the people at large would be “as unnatural … as it would [be to] refer a trial of colors to a blind man.” The Electoral College was designed to put the Presidency an extra step away from direct voter choice and so derail any demagogue who appealed to the fickle will of the uninformed.