Nobody but pollsters actually like the public-opinion polls. The public is suspicious that they’re used to manipulate public opinion. The growing plethora of polls is a menace.
What is presented as “scientific polling” more and more is not scientific at all. Many polls don’t pretend to be. The pollsters frequently beg off responsibility for reliability by conceding a limited sample, calling it “nonscientific” and hoping the public won’t notice the asterisk.
Analyzing the public mind is an attempt to scrutinize a vast body of personal opinions, often temporary opinions, held by men and women about whose thinking processes the pollsters can obviously know very little.
Yet such polls are increasingly used as an instrument for public decision-making and action or, in fact, for running the government. Polling is the perfect example of the widespread belief that statistical analysis — which the digital revolution has made remarkably easy and done at warp speed — is the ultimate measure of public opinion. The German philosopher Wilhelm Frederick Hegel said “quantity changes lead to quality changes,” but simply adding up the numbers, when the phrasing of the questions can determine the response, is a road to ruin.
Polls predicting winners of political races are often correct, but sometimes they’re not. Eleven separate polling organizations not only incorrectly called the May parliamentary elections in Britain, but failed completely. David Cameron’s Conservatives did not lose, as predicted, but won a majority instead of a “hung Parliament” forcing another coalition government.
The Republican presidential campaign debates demonstrate how polls are blocking solutions to problems. The purpose of the contest among a dozen or so candidates is to examine men and women putting themselves forward, some of whom were not widely known, and how they might perform as president.
Polls are used to decide who the front-runners are, but the value of a large number of candidates enables the possibility, if not necessarily the likelihood, of finding hidden abilities in unexpected candidates — or to discover the faults and shortcomings of a popular but inadequate candidate.
The comparisons sometimes made to the Lincoln-Douglas debates that preceded the election of Abraham Lincoln on the eve of the Civil War are absurd. The debate between Lincoln and Stephen Douglas was a confrontation, frequently repeated, on the issues and a vetting of personalities. There were no sound bites, no arbitrary limiting answers to 90 seconds or closing statements of only 30 seconds. No army of handlers. No spin room. Each man took his time, without interruptions, to make his case.
The spectacle of the MSNBC debate demonstrated the failure of the current attempt to join the issues and pick a right candidate. The Fox Business News debate was better, but not by a lot. It’s not the media’s rightful role to stage and control debates. There must be a better way.
John F. Kennedy and Barry Goldwater, who had become friends in the U.S. Senate, had agreed to debates like the Lincoln-Douglas debates if they were the nominees in 1964, but fate intervened, and a precedent was lost. But what if the two parties and their candidates could agree to resurrect the example of Lincoln and Douglas and be put on a train, like Harry S. Truman in 1948, and sent on a tour of the nation. The sheer novelty would draw enormous crowds, and the daily back and forth would actually become a debate.
Allowing the television networks to arrange the campaign for maximum ratings and advertising revenue, and deciding who should participate by averaging polls, is choosing the president by media manipulation. There must be a better way.