Did 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 generalbut
then again, so is everything else. Still, how interesting!
I 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.
The 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:
1. 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 ConsumersNew
Zogby Consumer Profile Finding
2. No Bounce: Bush Job Approval Unchanged by War Speech; Question
on Impeachment Shows Polarization of Nation; Americans Tired of Divisiveness in CongressWant
Bi-Partisan SolutionsNew Zogby Poll
The 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 forme.g., 51 percent for Bush, 49 percent for Kerrywhen the actual
numbers are more like 26-24 percent, if you include nonvoters.
Respondents, 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.’”
Our 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 askedusually 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 of Iraq?
Regarding 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.”
That single, solitary, unexpressive number53 percentreveals
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.
Here 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
Well, 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.
Clearly, 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.
It 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.
Which 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.
Maybe 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:
Would you yank your son out of college and send him to die for this bullshit?
Would you yourself be willing to give your life for this cause?
If yes, grab your shit; there’s a bus outside.
Those 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.
What’s 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.
Disgraced 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.
Get 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.
In 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?”
But 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.
A 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 countedby name, swearing on the blood of your children. What kind of country goes to war
whispering “yes” into a telephone?