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The Problem With Polls


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If most of the public opinion polls are to be believed, the Republican Party is careening toward a shellacking of historic proportions in next month’s midterm elections. Given the state of the Iraq war, a series of scandals involving Republicans, and the general mood of discontent that seems to have settled over the country, few will be surprised if the polls prove accurate. Then again, voters are notoriously fickle and uninformed, and polls often miss the mark – the 1994 Republican takeover of the House and Senate caught pollsters by surprise, as did the GOP’s success in the 2002 midterms.

What polls do consistently reveal is a constantly shifting and often contradictory collective mindset, one easily influenced by newspaper headlines and the monologues of late-night comics.

The polls currently showing a sizable Democratic advantage in the upcoming Congressional sweepstakes are based on questions many, if not most, voters are unqualified to answer – questions that presuppose a respondent’s familiarity with his or her incumbent congressman, with their challengers, and with the party affiliation of incumbent and challenger alike. According to survey after survey, such presuppositions have little basis in fact.

And bear in mind that for years now polls have been indicating that self-described fed-up voters – the kind who every election cycle pronounce themselves irredeemably dismayed, disgusted, and disgruntled with Congress as an institution – overwhelmingly support the reelection of their own representatives. So while Republicans have good reason to dread the electoral drubbing the media are all but declaring a certainty, there are enough caveats in the polling data and in recent voter behavior to offer even the most despondent GOPer some hope.

Oh, and lest some tender-hearted readers accuse the Monitor of excessive cynicism regarding the limitations of the typical American voter, here are some tidbits to chew on, from Matthew Robinson’s 2002 book Mobocracy: How the Media’s Obsession with Polling Twists the News, Alters Elections and Undermines Democracy:

● Twenty-nine percent of Americans believe the Constitution guarantees everyone a job; 42 percent believe it guarantees health care; 75 percent believe it guarantees a high school education.

● Nearly half – 45 percent – of all Americans believe the Marxist axiom “from each according to his abilities, to each according to his needs” is in the Constitution.

● A January 2000 Gallup Poll found that 66 percent of Americans could name the then-host of TV’s “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire” (Regis Philbin), but just 6 percent knew the name of the Speaker of the House of Representatives (Dennis Hastert).

● A 1986 survey found that almost 24 percent of the American public did not know who George Bush was or that he was then serving his second term as vice president of the United States.

● According to “Losing America’s Memory: Historical Illiteracy in the 21st Century,” a 2000 study of college seniors, barely one in three knew that George Washington was the American general at the battle of Yorkstown – the decisive battle in the U.S. war for independence; more than one in three were unaware of the division of power set forth in the U.S. Constitution; only 22 percent of those seniors – from elite universities such as Harvard, Stanford and the University of California – knew the source of the phrase “government of the people, by the people and for the people” (taken from Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address); but 98 percent could identify gangsta rapper Snoop Doggy Dogg.

● The Vanishing Voter Project, a program of Harvard’s Joan Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy, conducted a running survey of randomly selected registered voters during the 2000 presidential campaign. Respondents were asked six questions on the policy positions of Republican George W. Bush and six on the positions of Democrat Al Gore. Of the 12 questions – which covered a broad range of topics including defense spending, campaign financing, offshore drilling and affirmative action – only one was answered correctly by a majority of Americans. The rest of them weren’t even a close call.

About the Author: Jason Maoz is the Senior Editor of The Jewish Press.


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