Committee Of Correspondence

Are Polls Polluting Politics?

Howard Kurtz
8:39 a.m.  Friday  9/27/96 

       Ah, finally Fred Barnes has gone into his “McLaughlin” mode and we can start yelling at each other. Of course Bill Clinton is a poll-driven politician–excuse the redundancy–but I pointed out three instances (Bosnia, Haiti and the Mexican bailout) where he actually ignored the polls and did what he thought was right. “Ludicrous,” declares Fred, responding only that Clinton tarried too long on Bosnia (obviously true). But he did defy the all-important polls.
       The 25-point gender gap, as Eleanor reminds us, is an example of useful information that polls can provide, rather than this dumb insistence on asking “would you vote for Democrats or Republicans for Congress?” when such races are so heavily local. The (mostly male) pundits have made fun of Clinton’s teensy weensy proposals–I’ve done it myself on occasion–on family leave, 48 hours in the hospital for new mothers, etc. But obviously this has some resonance among female voters. Dole has even gone so far as to use a female narrator in his latest attack ad on drug use.
       I’ll close with Herb Stein’s very interesting comment on whether pollsters should be told to “Just Don’t Do It.” I don’t think they should be put out of work, any more than the people who make those sleazy negative ads. It’s the rest of us–the pols, the journalists and the public–that act as enablers in playing up polls (and strategies and ads and inside baseball) to the point where many disgusted Americans have tuned the whole thing out, convinced it has little to do with their daily lives. And I don’t need a poll to say that with considerable certainty. Eleanor Clift
10:37 a.m.  Friday  9/27/96 

       To take a poll is human nature. Be it ever thus. The best we can ask for is that they become the wallpaper of an election, always there but not the center of attention.
       The last four years have demonstrated again that the democratic system responds only when there is crisis, or the perception of crisis. Whoever wins this November will establish a blue-ribbon commission to deal seriously with reining in entitlements, and the two parties will face the consequences together. Sure the politicians will poll-test ways to deliver bad news to make it sound good, but I have faith that some, though not all, of what is necessary will be done.
       Fred, spare us the histrionics about Clinton being poll-driven. Remember the Contract With America? Only items that tested 65-percent approval or better were included–and you praised it as a noble idea to restore faith in government. And if you’re going to chide Clinton for voting with Democratic interest groups, doesn’t his support of NAFTA, which defied the labor unions, undermine your argument a wee bit?
       Republicans don’t get to copyright issues. Clinton was the Tommy Thompson of the ‘80s working on welfare reform as a governor.
       Bosnia? That conflict began when George Bush was in the White House, and I don’t recall a great outcry from you to take military action. Clinton inherited a bad situation with no great options and no allied support for military intervention. He may have acted belatedly, but he acted in Bosnia and elsewhere around the world in ways that have kept the peace and denied Bob Dole a campaign issue. Arianna Huffington
1:05 p.m.  Friday  9/27/96 

       Blaming the pollsters for poll pollution is like blaming the mercury in the thermometer for a rise in the temperature. Pollsters are there because there are far too many politicians who won’t take a step without them. But there is something that we can do. As a nation, we can stop answering their questions. Let’s start a campaign urging Americans to hang up on pollsters. After all, why should you talk to a perfect stranger who interrupts your dinner and asks you often moronic questions about your views?
       The only alternative to this drastic measure is the emergence of political leaders determined to work to create a consensus for fundamental reform. Instead the political landscape is filled with politicians who never stop looking over their shoulder at the latest polls, and whose mottoes seem to be, “I’m their leader, I shall follow them.” It makes you long for De Gaulle. When Soustelle returned from Algiers where he had taken an informal poll, he told De Gaulle: “Mon General, my friends in Algiers do not like your policies.” The General replied: “Changez vos amis–Change your friends.” Fred Barnes
1:35 p.m.  Friday  9/27/96 

       Gee, people sure get mad when you zing Bill Clinton. I’m accused of slipping into McLaughlin mode and indulging in histrionics. Eleanor’s response is to say Republicans rely on polls, too, and often rely excessively. I’ll buy that. It doesn’t change the fact that Bill Clinton is the most poll-molded politician in human history.
       My final thought is to say that the number of polls presented to the public is not the problem, but the number of polls presented to the public as the conclusive, firm, final word on some subject or campaign is. In this regard, the biggest single fault is presenting as real public opinion a set of responses on subjects that much of the public hasn’t made up its mind about or even thought about.
       That’s why there’s so much “volatility” in polls. It’s not that 20 percent of the public changes its mind about a Senate candidate in the last week, say, of a campaign. It’s that folks finally come to a final conclusion after not paying attention or not having a solid view before. Polls don’t reflect intensity of feeling about a subject or a candidate. In fact, intensity can be everything. Herb Stein
2:29 p.m.  Friday  9/27/96 

       I’m afraid the discussion is deteriorating from talk about polls to talk about pols, an endless and unedifying subject. So we had better stop. Anyway, time is up. What I think emerges from this discussion is how much room and need there is for educating the public, the media and the politicians about how much and what significance to attach to polls. I hope that our discussion has been some help in that direction. Our panelists are all in the business of public education, in one way or another, so perhaps they will use the media they command to continue the educational process.
       I thank them all for a lively and informative discussion. Perhaps we can meet again, after the election, and analyze what difference the polls made, for good or ill.
       Next week the Committee of Correspondence will discuss “What Happened to the Great American Movie?” Our panelists will be:

  • Joe Queenan, contributing editor to GQ and Movieline.
  • Frank Rich, columnist on the Op-Ed Page of the New York Times.
  • Ben Stein, actor, author and producer in Hollywood.
  • Jack Valenti, President and CEO of the Motion Picture Association of America.