Polls: The Opiate of the Pundits

I'm a Morning Joe watcher. I like Joe Scarborough's impartiality as he tries to make sense of the mess that is our political process. But Mr. Scarborough, like other pundits who guest on his show, is obsessed with the daily polls. And why not? In a world governed by profits and instant gratification rather than altruistic men and women, what serves the media better than statistics that change daily, that can be divided and subdivided, and that can be constantly reinterpreted in an attempt to engage an audience that's dying to switch to Good Morning America? Polls are to pundits what statistics are to baseball fans. They add texture, even if not real predictability. They provide the excuse for re-masticating the same cud on a daily basis, all the while leaving the audience clucking, or yawning, over arcane subtleties that are supposed to help them arrive at a decision that will directly influence their lives.

To understand the poll mania, we have to understand the context. At some point, the news became less important than the person who delivered it. Not only does the messenger control the content of the message; the pundit-cum-talk show host also controls the volume and the frequency. This cult of personality has created the multimillion dollar contract, and anyone being payed that much must know what's good for us. The result has been a steady migration from straightforward news to content massage. Impartiality has flown out the window, and even the network news programs are slanted. Nowadays, one has to go to The News Hour, C-SPAN or CNN to have any hope of getting a balanced look at the day's events.

The star/pundit, who may not really know what he's talking about on many of the subjects he presents, has a real refuge in polls. They make a great excuse for bringing in polling experts. There is no need to do any hard analysis. That's been done by the people actually composing the poll questions and sorting out the demographics. The pundit merely has to present the numbers, and let the guest pundit explain how the woman's vote has been divided into suburban single women, women with children only conceived by in vitro fertilization, women who ride Harleys, women who own chainsaws, women who would never dream of doing their own nails, etc., and why each group is voting for either Obama or Romney.

What I find most unnerving about all this poll watching is that I don't know what impact it has on the electorate. Now there's a poll I'd like to see. When one listens to average voters calling into the radio shows or to C-SPAN's Washington Journal, one realizes that there is no shortage of racists, misogynists, hysterical tea-partiers, frightening fundamentalists, overt communists, and mental defectives. This would lead one to believe that there is also a body of voters who are simply confused or under-informed, and waiting to be told for whom to vote. We've already formulated rules to prevent networks from announcing results before polls close (although they all flaunt those rules) because we know that such announcements affect the decisions of those who have not yet gone to the polls. How much of a leap is it to suppose that telling people who's winning the week before the election makes the well-known bandwagon effect influence those who struggle with their polling decisions?

What plays into this problem is the facile way in which polls are interpreted. Pundits have constantly, and correctly, complained about the complete lack of any meaningful discussion of the issues in the current presidential campaign. They then proceed to also eschew any meaningful discussion, and get right to the polls. People in Ohio are voting for Obama because of the auto bailout. What if Romney wins Ohio? Who the heck would have voted for him, the part of the electorate that's anti-car and only takes public transportation? More women are moving toward Romney. Why? Did they suddenly realize that they don't deserve reproductive rights? We come away with a bunch of poll numbers, and no understanding whatsoever of the people who participated in the polling. And when the polls numbers change, among whom have they changed? Did the pollster go back and ask the same fickle Ohioans whether they've changed their minds again, or are they another group, in which case, how do we know which is more legitimate?

What about this one? "In a poll of registered voters... but among those likely to vote..." Who cares about registered voters if you can tell me what the actual participants are going to do? Is the assumption that registered voters may vote after all if they cancel their dinner plans? If you're polling registered voters, what about the demographic of breathing adults who might decide to register at the last minute?

Polling has always been with us, but it used to be accompanied by articulate candidates, meaningful dialogue, and pundits who actually cared more about illuminating issues than about their ratings. Instead we get poll reports that may perversely influence the very outcome they purport to predict. What better exemplar of a society that has moved to a super-electronic, newspaper-less culture of instant gratification. If you have the privilege of being paid to be on TV, just explain the issues, and then shut up, go away, and let us decide for ourselves.