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Don't Ask Me

"It's silly to do telephone surveys," says Gordon S. Black of Harris Interactive. For studies targeting groups who are less likely to have computers -- older people, rural residents, minorities -- Internet surveys "aren't the best way to go," he says. But for other surveys, "why bother if the Internet is more accurate and less expensive?"

Do Presidents Listen?

To their most vociferous critics, pollsters have become the puppet masters of American politics. In this formulation, politicians stick wet fingers into the wind of public opinion before they act on matters large and small. This cynical view of politicians as slaves to statistics was easy to believe. During the 1990s, it seemed that a poll-intoxicated President Clinton was basing even the most trivial decision on survey numbers. In one widely reported incident, Clinton dumped a planned vacation on Martha's Vineyard in 1995 and instead went camping in the Tetons after presidential pollster Dick Morris interviewed 10,000 Americans and found that "camping" was the favored presidential vacation among married families with children, a key constituency that Clinton needed to win reelection in 1996.

After the Minneapolis Star Tribune published a poll showing John Kerry with a 9-point lead over the president, pro-Bush demonstrators gathered outside its offices demanding that Rob Daves, the newspaper's pollster, be fired. (Minneapolis Star Tribune)

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So entrenched was the view that the pols use polls to formulate policy that scholars only recently have begun to ask whether it's true. Robert Shapiro of Columbia University and Lawrence Jacobs of the University of Minnesota attempted to answer that question, and their initial findings seem to turn conventional wisdom on its head.

The researchers tracked Americans' views on a range of political issues and compared them with the relevant legislation that Congress eventually approved. Twenty years ago, lawmakers did what a majority of Americans wanted about two-thirds of the time, they found. Today, Congress is on the same page with the public only about 40 percent of the time.

The same is true for presidents. President Bush and Congress are cutting taxes at a time that a majority of Americans prefer the money be spent reducing the deficit or on social programs, polling consistently has shown. Shapiro cites Clinton's failed health care plan in 1993 as an example of a policy that reflected the president's and not the public's priorities.

"Polls were not used to put together the plan, polls were used to put together a strategy to sell the plan," Shapiro says.

He said the only time politicians pay much attention to the public's priorities is around Election Day. Shapiro noted that in 1996, "Clinton signed off on welfare reform, a bill he would have otherwise rejected. The Republicans agreed to vote for a minimum wage bill."

But so what? "These are electoral pressures. That is what elections are for," Shapiro says. "This is the one shot the public gets to influence the process. Between elections, politicians don't respond to polls in that way. They collect information to lead or manipulate public opinion to achieve their own political or ideological goals."

After Election Day, the heat's off and politicians go back to pressing their own agendas -- which is exactly what Clinton did in 1996 after he had won reelection.

That summer there was no family camping trip, no hiking, no mountain respite for Clinton. He was back on Martha's Vineyard.

Doing Away With Polls

At least one news organization has decided to stop doing pre-election polls altogether. Not because they're inaccurate but because they're addictive.

"They suck all of the oxygen out of the coverage by reducing the whole thing to who's up and who's down," says Tony Burman, chief news editor of the Canadian Broadcasting Corp. "Besides, the methodology is really becoming suspect. The response rate has become low, and reliability has suffered. So we decided not to commission them on our own and be very restrained in covering them."

The CBC abruptly quit pre-election polling in May, weeks before the Canadian national election. The goal, Burman wrote in an e-mail to staff, was "to ensure that more coverage and attention during the campaign will be devoted to the actual issues in front of the electorate -- leaving the determination of actual 'voter preference' to the voters on election day."

Burman urges his counterparts in this country to do the same. "There is a lot of empty coverage in the United States devoted to horse-race polls that just fill up the airtime. It's the quintessential example of lazy journalism." He says he's "not lecturing anyone on it. We're just happy that we're getting the balance right."

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