Electoral polls were created with somebody like me in mind. Yes, I’m that politics junkie with an unhealthy obsession with statistical gratification that will support my own views, who craves the latest information about how the world thinks, whom others support and what tides are rolling in on the political landscape. And someone who would like to believe he can help shape that. However, I know these polls are bad for me because it’s becoming increasingly difficult to see the pressing need that allegedly exists for pollsters calling me every week and collecting this data. In the end, voters are ill-served.
Just think about the effects on our election season, which the media has locked in a full nelson. We would rather have a superficial retelling of what’s going on in the minds of average, often uninformed, voters than a substantive debate on issues that affect the electorate daily. By merely examining which candidate is doing the better job of wooing certain demographics, we conveniently forget about aggressive foreign policy, weakening deficit control and increased executive power. And by rating candidates on a 10-point scale, we further simplify countless policy decisions down to a meaningless integer. We disregard the poor and alienated because we’re told the middle class is the only constituency that matters. And we’re fed denigrating campaign ads over and over instead of promoting positive change.
Imagine, if you will, what would actually be lost if we cut out the political polling. Perhaps our news outlets would go back to being a check on government authority instead of insipid data collectors. Perhaps debates would be more fair. Instead of catering to the candidates who are leading at the time and to the issues that employ the more divisive buzzwords. Perhaps we would be less susceptible to partisan scare tactics aimed at exploiting the numbers to create more fundraising opportunities. You know, things like: “He’s got a slight edge in the polls and if he wins, civilization as we know it will cease to exist! Donate now!” And while I can’t prevent my mom from forwarding along partisan chain emails with indirectly the same purpose, the party establishment would have less ammunition to use.
It’s all about perception anyway — the perception of the average voter. But what average voters know and understand should not be the rubric by which we decide who sits in the most important office in the world. If it were, we’d be confined to a pre-ordained smorgasbord of talking points. Likability can certainly be a factor, but let it be a factor that manifests itself in the voting booth and not on CNN in hopelessly cumbersome breaking news analyses.
Political polling is detrimental to democratic elections in that votes lose their impact. Citizens believe they no longer have tenable choices, so they’re forced to settle for supporting a candidate who is less than ideal, simply because polls have written off the rest as unelectable. These weekly numbers are a mere political puppet show, one whose audience is mystically drawn in without realizing the greater media and corporate forces pulling the strings at the top.
So, Quinnipiac and Rasmussen and Gallup and company: I’m going to stop nibbling on this inane pretzel logic that defines American electoral politics. I’m just hoping everybody else doesn’t take too big of a bite. Otherwise, they might choke.
A version of this article appeared in the Sept. 6 print edition. Chris DiNardo is opinion editor. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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