Are Polls Polluting Politics?

Are Polls Polluting Politics?

Dec. 1 2004 11:46 AM

Are Polls Polluting Politics?

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Howard Kurtz
9:47 a.m.  Wednesday  9/25/96 

       The problem, dear Brutus, lies not in our polls but in ourselves. That seems to be the essence of the moderator's argument: "Maybe we are all centrists and there is nothing to debate about." This by way of saying why the '96 focus has been so heavily on polls and not issues.
       What, then, were the two government shutdowns about? Don't the two parties have radically different views on abortion? On gun control? On aiding cities? On cutting taxes for the rich or whether the Department of Education should be blown up? Sure, Clinton and Dole, in the ever-present scramble for the center, are trying to fuzz up these differences, but that doesn't mean the rest of us have to play along. The substitution of polls for policy is in part the result of lazy journalism. Or maybe people have become so disillusioned with politics that they don't see any real possibility of change (which is why most people don't think their own taxes will be cut under Dole's plan).
       As for the more cosmic question of whether polls affect election outcomes, this may well be true in state and local races, where contributions can dry up when one candidate is seen as hopelessly behind. But the White House contenders get a $62 million check from the Treasury (and in fact can't spend more, except for the "hard" and "soft" and other funny money from the parties). Also, Clinton and Dole don't have to scramble for media attention like some Senate or House candidates. Even poll-deficient nominees are followed by 'planefuls of reporters. So the impact of bad numbers is somewhat less (although there has been a drop-off in page-one stories about the campaign in the major papers).
       Finally, the problem with governing according to the polls is that people say they want contradictory things, such as a balanced budget but no cuts in entitlement programs. So relying solely on pollsters is ultimately a cop-out.

Eleanor Clift
10:29 a.m.  Wednesday  9/25/96 

       First, Arianna, to govern a country of 250 million people, a politician is entitled to some guidance on how potential policies will be received. A lot of what pollsters do is devise language that will best advance the ideas of their clients. I find the prospect of politicians who willfully ignore public opinion surveys more unsettling than those who rely on them too much.
       Polls have a far greater impact on the political-handler class than they do on the general public. There is a ripple effect among the insiders that is especially potent in congressional races. A good poll attracts money and talent; a bad poll dries them up. The business community follows polls closely. When Republican prospects brightened before the '94 election, business interests upped their contributions to the GOP. With polls now showing the Democrats may take back Congress, the GOP is putting more pressure on business to protect their investment.
       I agree with Howard that there are real differences between Clinton and Dole, and I am counting on the debates to bring them to the forefront. This election is about one big idea, and that is the role of the federal government.

Arianna Huffington
11:42 a.m.  Wednesday  9/25/96 

       Yes, I can visualize action by the candidates that would drive the daily poll numbers out of the headlines. But hard as I try--and I'm sure I've done more visualizing than the rest of you combined--I cannot visualize either presidential candidate doing--or for that matter saying--anything that would shift attention from the horse race. The reason is that this is a holding-pattern election. All important issues--including entitlement reform and bringing about real welfare reform--have been shelved until after November.
       Fred says that I'm wrong about poll-conscious Republicans turning balancing the budget into the Holy Grail. Balancing the budget, he says, is GOP dogma. But so is tax-cutting and school choice and cutting government regulations. Yet it was balancing the budget rather than fundamental reform that the GOP chose to put on the front burner because of its overwhelming, bumper-sticker popularity.
       And Fred, if you talk to any Republican leader after hours, he will admit to you that once they made that decision, tackling Medicare was the only way they could get the savings they needed to achieve their goal in the mythical seven years with CBO numbers. Not that Medicare didn't need reform--God knows it does--but the reason why Medicare preceded welfare is that the savings in welfare reform were not enough. It was numbers, Fred, that drove the decisions, not lives. And the Republicans are paying a heavy price for this.

Fred Barnes
4:53 p.m.  Wednesday  9/25/96 

       I'm afraid Arianna misses my point, which is that Republicans decided to reform and slow the growth of Medicare despite, not because of, polls. If they'd followed the polls, perhaps out of a desire to rush to the political center, they'd have steered clear of serious Medicare reform, maybe by extending the deadline for a balanced budget to 8 or 9 years. And remember, Republicans couldn't honorably abandon a balanced budget, having advocated it noisily for years, including in the Contract with America.
       Howie is unfair to Dole in saying he, like Clinton, is merely veering to the center in response to polls. True, Dole has done some of this, but not on taxes, immigration, school choice. His positions on these--big tax cut, bar kids of illegal immigrants from attending public school, vouchers for private and religious schools--do not now have the support of a large majority of Americans. Dole is looking for a contrast with Clinton, not trying to avoid one to get in sync with polls.
       Finally, let's note the most recent polling gone bad: the Louisiana Senate primary. For months, polls showed two Democrats running ahead of six Republicans, way ahead. Funding for all GOP candidates didn't dry up, nor did their supporters slip away gloomily. In the two weeks before the September 21 primary, a single Republican emerged, and it wasn't inevitable. Not only did Woody Jenkins finish first in the primary, he now is favored to beat Democrat Mary Landrieu, the front-runner for months in polls, in the runoff. As Eleanor suggests, polls don't always have a big impact on voters.

Herb Stein
5:34 p.m.  Wednesday  9/25/96 

       A few thoughts about the Huffington point. She thinks politicians and policy-makers are too much influenced by polls. She gives the Republican decision to commit themselves to balancing the budget as an example, maintaining that it was both poll-driven and mistaken. But for the last 60 years, ever since polls were first taken on the subject, an overwhelming majority of the public have said that they wanted the budget to be balanced. But they never elected anyone who would balance the budget. Politicians knew that to be the case. Politicians felt they had to respond to this public sentiment by saying they were for balancing the budget, by promising to balance it, by submitting budgets that looked as if they would come into balance sometime in the future (but really wouldn't) and, as a last resort, by reducing the deficit, but not to zero.
       So, while she may be right it isn't clear to me that reading the polls forced the Republicans into a budget-balancing commitment. When all else fails one might try the hypothesis, however unlikely, that politicians made a decision based on weighing the long-run national interest. In my opinion, the long-run national interest points more strongly to the need for balancing the budget, and, indeed, running a surplus, today, than at any time in the past ever. Believing that, I am inclined to think that there are some politicians who also think that.
       Then there is the question Clift raises. Policy-makers do not get important decisions out of a computer. They want to know what people think. They used to learn by reading the editorials in leading newspapers. They listened to people they talked to--friends from around the country--some of whom had black bags filled with $100 bills. Do the polls distort, in an undesirable way, the total body of information on which policy-makers depend?
       I see I am falling into the mode Kurtz derides, saying that "Polls don't pollute politics; pundits and politicians do." Sorry.