Tags: Polls | Presidential History | candidates | first amendment | pollsters | reston

Public Opinion Polls Pointlessly Undermine Democracy

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Tuesday, 04 December 2018 04:51 PM Current | Bio | Archive

Our political system would be greatly improved if public opinion polls, now such a prominent part of the national landscape, were outlawed by Congress. A great deal of "news" during the run-up to elections is devoted to who is ahead, who is trending up or down, and what the reported poll numbers really mean.

These discussions deflect public attention from the important matters — policy issues, the candidates' records, temperament and personal character — that people might do better to focus on when deciding how to vote.

Polls have not always been accurate. In 1936 they predicted that Republican Alf Landon would trounce Franklin D. Roosevelt, but Roosevelt won the electoral votes of all but two states. (Afterwards, James A. Farley commented sarcastically that the old slogan, "As goes Maine, so goes the nation," needed to be updated to "As goes Maine, so goes Vermont.")

In 1948, pollsters predicted that Thomas E. Dewey would win, leading to the Chicago Tribune's famous blooper headline, "Dewey Defeats Truman."

Unfortunately these debacles did not discredit public opinion polls forever.

What is the point of trying to predict how an election will turn out? Why not just wait and see, after the election? The money spent for polling and statistical analysis could be applied instead to constructive uses.

Of course people do like a horse race, and newspapers and TV newscasters like to report what will maximize the eyeballs paying attention to them. The bigger the audience, the more they can charge advertisers, so mere appeals to stop polling or stop talking about them won't have much effect.

If we are to fix this problem, Congress will probably have to prohibit polling and publication of the results of polling during several months prior to national elections.

But what about the First Amendment? It says that "Congress shall make no law . . . abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press .  . . ." To prohibit polls during election campaigns would obviously abridge free speech. Polls, after all, are conducted by asking people questions, compiling answers, and publishing their findings.

Pollsters would lose a lot of profitable business if Congress banned polling and would certainly challenge the ban in court, probably supported by the American Civil Liberties Union.

Even so a polling ban might be upheld by the courts, since despite its categorical language the First Amendment has never been considered to prohibit all limits on speech. A polling ban would only apply during campaign season.

It would only apply to the time, place, or manner of speech, not to any particular message.

Courts have sustained similar restrictions on speech if they serve an important public purpose. Sound trucks, for example, can be prohibited from haranguing residential neighborhoods during hours when people normally sleep.

Creating conditions in which candidates talk about, and the media reports, things that might permit more thoughtful voting is surely an important public purpose.

A ban on polling would also have two additional benefits:

1. It would prevent candidates from conducting their own polls so they can say what voters want to hear rather than what they really think about policy matters. Even by 1976 columnist James Reston felt it necessary to reassure his readers that the victorious Jimmy Carter was not "going to swallow his own campaign baloney."

2. It would get rid of the organizations merely pretending to do polling that, before elections, pester us with phone calls. Their "push polls" ask loaded questions in an attempt to manipulate voters into voting for or against particular candidates or referendum issues. They generally do not even tabulate the answers they get. Tabulating, of course, would be a waste of money. These "polls" do not survey the random cross section of the public sought by genuine pollsters and, unlike legitimate polls, have questions intentionally designed to encourage people to answer in certain desired ways.

By banning polling prior to elections Congress could help voters concentrate on important issues, prevent us from being harassed by phony pollsters, and make it harder for candidates put out campaign baloney in the first place.

What's there not to like about all this?

Paul F. deLespinasse is Professor Emeritus of Political Science and Computer Science at Adrian College. He received his Ph.D. from Johns Hopkins University in 1966, and has been a National Merit Scholar, an NDEA Fellow, a Woodrow Wilson Fellow, and a Fellow in Law and Political Science at the Harvard Law School. His college textbook, "Thinking About Politics: American Government in Associational Perspective," was published in 1981 and his most recent book is "Beyond Capitalism: A Classless Society With (Mostly) Free Markets." His columns have appeared in newspapers in Michigan, Oregon, and a number of other states. To read more of his reports — Click Here Now.

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PaulFdeLespinasse
By banning polling prior to elections Congress could help voters concentrate on important issues, prevent us from being harassed by phony pollsters, and make it harder for candidates put out campaign baloney in the first place. What's there not to like?
candidates, first amendment, pollsters, reston
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2018-51-04
Tuesday, 04 December 2018 04:51 PM
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