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The proliferation of polls: Where are the parameters?

By Marion Edwyn Harrison
web posted February
14, 2005

The proliferation of polls appears more and more to reflect the triumph of ignorance over knowledge.  Although the experts -- alleged experts? -- doubtless would deny it, clearly the appearance is that pollsters are as grasping, persevering and shameless as they are imaginative in parodying and parroting -- parodying a poll as meaningful, parroting the results as meaningful.

In 1936 the Literary Digest poll mercifully went out of business after it predicted that Governor Alf M. Landon would defeat President Franklin Delano Roosevelt's second-term bid.  For some years the American public managed without public-opinion polls.  In due course manufacturers and merchandisers utilized more esoteric surveys to attempt to sell product.  Whether the commercial sales effort metamorphosed into the public-opinion poll is debatable.  In any event, public-opinion polls began to proliferate -- from the seemingly indefatigable Gallup to a myriad of big-league and little-league competitors. 

Pollsters should have been embarrassed by their inability to call the almost across-the-board Republican victories in November 2004.  One doesn't need many fingers to count the pollsters which even came close in predicting the Bush popular vote, the Bush electoral vote or many other contests -- e.g., the election as United States Senator from Louisiana of Republican Representative David Vitter.

As though those failures were insufficient to tarnish the product, exit pollsters massively massacred the Presidential results -- hardly surprising if one considers that as a group more liberals than conservatives are prone to divulge their votes to unknown pollsters hanging around voting booths.

More recently we are asked to consider a January 26, 2005 Zogby Poll, which, apparently in all (feigned?) seriousness, would have us believe, among other mental gyrations, that "Justice Sandra Day O'Connor tops a list of potential Chief Justice nominees…" and that former New York Mayor Rudy "Giuliani placed second, the favorite of 14 per cent in the poll." 

Of course, Zogby polled only "944 likely voters [in what election?]" providing them with "a list of Republicans considered [by whom?] possible Chief Justice nominees…"  The list itself would astound anybody familiar with the Federal Judiciary, the White House or the Senate -- e.g., Giuliani, Fred Thompson, possibly Mickey Mouse (inasmuch as Zogby releases only seven names).  Did the "944 likely voters" include persons with unlisted telephone numbers or cellular-only telephones?  Could any of the 944:  Name the incumbent nine Justices?  Describe the professional background of a Justice?  Tell the pollster in what Federal Circuit the respondent lived?  Identify an opinion written by a Justice?

Regardless of the undeniably high, if not precisely quantifiable, ignorance level of the 944, what is the purpose of ascertaining uninformed views about potential Justices who might be the subject of a Constitutionally mandated process of Presidential nomination and, thereafter, Senatorial advice and consent?  What could the purpose be other than to attract attention and sell polls?

Professional pollsters aren't the only players in the polling game.  Consider those entities which commission a poll to support a cause and then, mirable dictu, release the supportive polling results to further their political objective.  A recent example is that of an organization called "DC Vote," which, notwithstanding the clear language of the Constitution, wants the District of Columbia to have not only the Presidential vote, as it already has, but two United States Senators and a Representative in Congress, as if it were a State of the Union.  (Coincidence, perhaps, that D. C. has a higher Democratic percentage vote than any State and undoubtedly would elect three liberal Democrats?)  With thoroughness and objectivity -- so it is stated -- DC Vote, through KRC Research, said to be "nonpartisan," conducted a "national survey" of all of 1,007 people and found that 78 per cent thought the District already had two Senators and a Representative and that 82 per cent thought it should. 

Might some pollsters play upon Thomas Gray's adage that "Where ignorance is bliss ‘tis folly to be wise."  (Eton College, Stanza 10.)  If so, beware, for the preceding line reads, "Thought would destroy this [pollsters'?] paradise."

Marion Edwyn Harrison, Esq. is President of, and Counsel to, the Free Congress Foundation.

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