Poll Dancing

Poll Dancing

Eric on Richard Thompson and Reed on the flawed history of polling.


My new “Think Again” column is called “Is America Getting More Conservative?” and it’s here.

Richard Thompson live, in person and on bluray:
I saw Richard Thompson do one of three “all request” shows at City Winery. It was a particularly engaging affair. Thompson sort of did the requests that had been deposited in a bowl beforehand, and sort of didn’t depending on whether he felt like it. Some of them he did even though they were pretty silly, including McCartney’s “Blackbird” and Warren Zevon’s “Werewolves of London.” He was playing solo and not all the sightlines were great, but it’s ok, because Thompson is not so pretty to look at, and the sound was crisp and clear particularly on his guitar. The song selection turned out to be pretty excellent too. There’s a new Eagle Rock Entertainment’s release both on DVD and bluray of Thompson’s band called Live At Celtic Connections.” It’s got twenty songs on it and comes in at nearly two and a half hours. The sound on bluray is killer. The song selection leans heavily on Dream Attic, his last album, which was recorded live, and the second set does the catalogue back to 1972, and is, I suppose, a matter of taste. You get “Wall of Death” and “Tear Stained Letter” but I could have used “The Dimming of the Day” in either place but nobody asked me. The bonus features include two extra songs filmed at the 2011 Cambridge Folk Festival: "Uninhabited Man" and "Johnny’s Far Away."

Now here’s Reed:

Poll Dancing
by Reed Richardson
The American press has long been infatuated with the allure of campaign polls, and understandably so. Thanks to their headline-ready horserace numbers, reams of topline data to be further parsed and charted, and the public’s natural curiosity in predictions about the future, polls satisfy almost every journalistic need an editor or producer might have on a slow news day. (And let’s not overlook the increasingly salient fact that, unless your news organization commissioned the poll, reporting such a story requires minimal resources.) But this symbiotic relationship has a downside too; one that is growing more insidious with every election and, if left unchecked, could start to erode the very foundations of our Constitution. 

Ironically, the rise of modern public opinion polling can be traced back to perhaps the worst media-polling blunder in our nation’s electoral history. On the eve of the 1936 presidential vote, the magazine The Literary Digest—just as it had for the five previous elections—released its public opinion poll of the race. Gleaned from an amazing 2.4 million reader responses, the magazine confidently predicted Kansas Republican Alf Landon would sweep incumbent Democrat Franklin Roosevelt out of the White House, winning 55 percent of the popular vote and 370 electoral votes. The election, to put it mildly, didn’t pan out this way—Roosevelt’s nationwide landslide (he even won Kansas) left Landon with a measly eight electoral votes.

It’s easy to look back now and laugh at The Literary Digest’s woeful prediction as mere hackneyed guesswork. (The poll’s inherent flaws are rooted in relying upon voluntary responses from a non-randomized pool of middle and upper-class voters.) But it’s important to realize that, at the time, the Digest’s presidential poll was considered cutting-edge and had proven itself extremely accurate, having correctly chosen the presidential victor since 1916 and predicted to within one percentage point the final popular vote tally in the 1932 election. 

The public furor over the incident redounded to the benefit of one George Gallup. His new, more scientific polling methods had led him to the conclusion—months before the actual vote—that Roosevelt would win in a walk. And this thinking would forever change the way polls approached both the public and public figures.

That is to say, it also changed the way the public and public figures approached polls. A mere five years after that landmark 1936 presidential prediction, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill was already sounding very much like a modern-day politician, lamenting the “the temperamental atmosphere of the Gallup poll, always feeling one’s pulse and taking one’s temperature.” For decades this mindset remained entrenched in both the media and political ruling classes. The madding crowd’s fickle and often fair-weather opinion, in other words, need not be heeded in between Election Days.

Though polling remained rather limited even during the Watergate era— the vaunted CBS News/New York Times poll was only conducted four times a year in 1977—it nonetheless fit in with the media’s evolution toward a more aggressive, bottom-up approach to news coverage. Perhaps not coincidentally, the rise of Bill Clinton during the 1992 presidential campaign first prompted Gallup to commit to the idea of ongoing tracking polls. By the time of Clinton’s impeachment six years later, the growing online newshole coupled with the public’s striking disconnect with the pundit class’s disapproval of Clinton pushed some pollsters into weekly tracking. And by the time the 2000 presidential election rolled around, daily pulse-taking during the final campaign stretch made its debut, albeit with extremely volatile results.

In the aftermath of that election, some in the media became increasingly suspect of polling’s journalistic news value as well as their sheer volume, as this American Journalism Review essay from early 2001 attests.

[Marvin Kalb, executive director of the Washington office of the Joan Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy], says the increasing use of tracking polls ‘represents less than the best of contemporary journalism—putting it most charitably.’


[A] count of polls available in the Roper Center for Public Opinion Research database shows about 130 taken in the two months preceding the 2000 election. In the two months before the 1980 election, there were about 20.

Once again, in hindsight, these complaints look prescient, if rather quaint in terms of scale. Four years later, ABC’s daily presidential tracking poll upped the ante again. Then, in 2008, prompted by the heavyweight Democratic primary contest between Obama and Hillary Clinton, Gallup started its daily political tracking poll in March. By the time that November arrived, no fewer than seven different national tracking polls were in the field.

But even that pales in comparison to this election cycle, which has become one of endless, ongoing polling. Forget the old adage that polls are mere snapshots. Their now unceasing frequency allows the media to weave together a day-by-day, if not hour-by-hour, moving narrative of the race. Indeed, in just the past two months, one can count nearly 90 different national poll releases on the GOP primary campaign (roughly two-thirds of these come from Gallup’s daily tracker) and more than six dozen state-specific polls in Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina, and Florida. And this total leaves out the dozens of other poll releases on President Obama’s job approval (tracked daily by Rasmussen Reports) and his head-to-head matchups with the various GOP primary candidates. 

Right now, we sit in what amounts to the Siberian wasteland of the GOP campaign calendar—the last debate was fully three weeks ago and the next primary isn’t for another 11 days. As such, this steady barrage of polls offers the media a convenient lifeline, a ready-made way to fill the ever voracious maw of airtime, blogs, and Twitter feeds. In effect, these polls—whether they be of the national, state, or head-to-head vs. Obama variety—represent hundreds of little proxy elections, each one judged to be worthy of being breathlessly reported, Tweeted, and analyzed for larger meaning.

Therein lies the danger, however. What might otherwise just be statistical noise in one poll now gets picked up and amplified by the campaign trail press corps and the punditocracy. Unwilling to be late to the zeitgeist, the establishment media finds itself all too eager to interpret the latest blip up or down in the polls as the sign of some larger, deeper shift in the populace’s political thinking, whether it’s real or not.

But by broadcasting and highlighting these supposed swings in opinion, the press runs the risk of distorting the very perceptions of the public they’re purported to be objectively measuring—akin to the “observer effect” in physics. With each new poll and its subsequent coverage, the media begins to create something of a self-fulfilling prophecy, whereby a politician deemed as “surging” (see Santorum, Rick) receives more positive press coverage and, in turn, becomes more attractive to the public, all the while someone whose momentum is seen as slowing (see Romney, Mitt) gets more critical and dismissive coverage, which can then further sour the public on his candidacy.

By ratcheting up the frequency of these polls and the coverage devoted to them, the press fosters a volatile discourse that is more prone to radical shifts in public opinion. Certainly that looks to be the phenomenon affecting the GOP presidential primary, as the right-hand side of this RealClear Politics chart of the last year’s polling attests. Even the candidates are wise to this newly heightened climate, as Newt Gingrich on Wednesday referred to the “Space Mountain” nature of this primary campaign’s many wild poll swings.

Of course, the tenacity, if not the consistency, with which Republican primary voters can’t yet abide giving Mitt Romney their party’s presidential nomination can’t be wholly blamed on polls and the media. His political baggage can apparently make almost anyone appear to be an attractive alternative to conservatives, no matter how unappealing they are to the rest of the country. Still, Romney’s current campaign struggles are rooted in the failure of his underlying “electability” argument, which relies upon a similar, poll-based intellectual foundation—this notion that what most people think or agree on is always the best course of action.

Writ large, this policy-by-what’s-most-popular approach is precisely the tyranny of the majority that the Founders hedged against when writing the Constitution and, more specifically, the Bill of Rights. All too often, however, the media has become susceptible to this argument when it applies to fundamental issues that shouldn’t be decided by the whims of majoritarian rule. And to me, it’s what makes the ‘most people agree’ defense of Obama’s just and honorable federal contraceptive mandate just as wobbly as those arguments that justify his troubling Gitmo policy and predilection for legally unaccountable drone strikes.

Just where this slippery slope can lead our country will be on full display in my home state of New Jersey this coming week. When the state Assembly joins the state Senate in passing a gay marriage bill, my not-so-esteemed governor Chris Christie will undoubtedly veto it, as promised. And by way of excusing this behavior, he will once again fall back to the notion that the state should settle the issue through a referendum and, as political cover, he will cite a few opinion polls, which show a slim majority favor the bill.

In our democracy, however, minority rights are never something to be granted or denied by popular vote. Sadly, my own hometown newspaper’s editorial page disagrees. It believes that those few positive public opinion polls that Christie not-so-innocently cites should convince the Democrats in the state legislature to drop their “mistrust” of the “will of the people.” (What could go wrong? Just ask the people of California.) But when our media invests too much stock in polls and public opinion as the best way to guide our politics, it’s perhaps not surprising that we end up hearing tendentiously anti-democratic arguments like this: “Theoretically, rights should be afforded equally. But pragmatically, history is the struggle for securing rights against political opponents.”

Indeed, our nation did have to fight a war of the latter, but history tells us that what compelled the Founders to revolt in the first place was their unshakable belief in the former. Indeed, we’ve fought too long and too hard aspiring to those theoretical ideals to now fall victim to the notion that 51% of us always know what is best for our country or its citizens. It’s a lesson the press would do well to remember, especially since its poll numbers don’t look too good right now.

Contact me directly at reedfrichardson (at) gmail dot com. 

The Mail:
Ken Waltzer

East Lansing

Seems to me that a single case — the popular response to Sheldon Adelson and Newt Gingrich — proves little about the ostensible disappearance of antisemitism in the United States, and other singular cases — like the widespread entrance into mainstream language of the idea of a secret Jewish power manipulating American foreign policy — suggest something quite different. Yes, the response to Wall Street malfeasance creating the recession suggests the same thing your article suggests — antisemitism wasn’t and isn’t the frame, antisemitism is down and declining; and yet isolationist strains and neo-realist complaints, from Ron Paul to Mearsheimer and Walt, have little problem renewing classic antisemitic themes….

The reality is thicker, considerably more complex, than you purport it to be.  There is declining antisemitism and there is also increasing antisemitism. Both exist together.  The really challenging issue is to sort this out and explain it.

Eric replies:
I’m not sure I disagree with any of the above, except in the particulars.  The phenomenon is certainly there. Its significance is the question and I think that is deeply overr-ated. Anyway, It’s hard to do justice to such nuance in a nine-hundred something word column. I thought the phenomenon about which I wrote was worth pointing out, and was something I had not seen anywhere else.

Michael Green 

Las Vegas

Dr. A., now you’ve done it.  In Las Vegas, our best columnist is John L. Smith of the Las Vegas Review-Journal, and when he wrote a book telling what Adelson has done and been accused of, and Adelson sued him for libel and drove him into bankruptcy.  So, expect a call.  We have some law firms out here that have benefited greatly from Adelson always suing people.

Editor’s Note: To contact Eric Alterman, use this form. 

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