It appears that the League of Women Voters does not adhere to Harry Truman's adage, "The buck stops here." The league's most recent ruling that participants in the presidential debates will be dtermined by the results of survey of public opinion shows that it knows how to pass the buck. To qualify as a participant, a candidate must receive at least 15 percent of the vote in the polls. Under this criterion, George Wallace, who managed to win five states in the 1968 general election but who received only 13.5 percent of the popular vote, would not have qualified.
I believe the league's decision is both bad and wrong. If there is one lesson that has been learned during this campaign, it is that polls do not predict the future. They simply reveal the attitudes of the American people -- attitudes that have changed again and again throughout this campaign -- at a given point in time. Yet the league is ready to let the crucial decision of whom the American people will be allowed to hear in a presidential debate be determined by polls taken in August.
I have another, more fundamental objection: the American people seem to be looking for one particular quality in this presidential election: leadership. I find it ironic tht the League of Women Voters has decided to provide followership -- to let the polls determine who should be in the debates.
As a pollster who has been measuring public opinion for 15 years, I believe strongly that survey research does and should play an important role in our democratic society. However, the selection of participants for the debates is not one of the roles of polling. The polls have come in for much criticism in recent months, but I think much of this criticism should be aimed at those who misuse and misread the polls.
The use of survey research to determine who should participate in the 1980 presidential debates is a perfect example of misuse of the tool of survey research. It serves neither the league nor the polling industry well. During the past year, I have witnessed the volatility and unpredictability of the American people and of the polls. There is no reason to believe that the next 80 days will find public opinion any more stable than it has been in the first 230 ydays of this year.
Nevetheless, the League of Women Voters has decided to let polls taken within a single period of time determine which candidates will be allowed to participate in its presidential debates.
Let us look at some of the pitfalls of using survey research for such a purpose.
A sample size of 1,500 (the normal national sample) has a margin of error of plus or minus at least 2 percent, assuming the survey was conducted under the strictest methodological procedures. This means that a candidate who receives less than 17 percent of the vote in the survey could be well above or below the arbitrary 15 percent the league has defined. A candidate who received only 13 percent of the vote could also qualify under the margin of error. In other words, because of the margin of error, the league may include a candidate who should not qualify or it may eliminate one who should.
A national survey ignores the fact that an independent candidate can significantly affect the Electroal College results because he may garner a great deal of support from one region or state.
The surveycould not be taken at a worse time -- when the political process is most uncertain. The Democrats have just concluded their national convention, and it is likely that there may be some short-term distortion of voter attitudes at this time. Yet 30 days prior to the first debate, the league will determine who is to qualify.
A single question determining the standing hardly provides a true understanding of election dynamics. We know from our own polling that some candidates who do not show up well in the current standings have great appeal to the voters, but one question will be enough for the league's purposes.
There are a number of methodological questions that anyone in survey research will want answered before accepting the results of the survey: Is the survey interviewing only likely voters? How will the survey determine who is a likely voter? Will respondents be interviewed by telephone and, if so, how will the survey ensure that the type of voter who does not own a telephone is represented? If the sample is not a perfect microscosm of the voting universe, will the league use a weighting procedure? Will the weighted and unweighted figures be available?
Debates are necessary to structure a dialogue and to help the voters understand what an election is all about. A country that is groping to find its moorings badly needs a series of presidential debates in 1980, and the league provides a valuable service in sponsoring them.
But as Harry Truman said, "If you can't stand the heat, get out of the kitchen." If the league cannot stand the heat of the selection process, it should delegate this responsibility to others who are willing to make a tough decisions.