Given the devastation that opinion surveys have brought to the American political process, we shouldn't be asking how polls can be sharpened but rather why they are endured and how they can be banished.
Polls are the life-support system for the finger-to-the-wind, quick-change politics of our time and, as such, are the indispensable tools for the ideologically hollow men who work politics like a soap-marketing campaign. While election-campaign junkies feast on this or that survey report concerning the presumed desires and interests of the electorate, what's lost in the crush of analysis and prophecy is the bedrock rationale for election campaigns. Their purpose, of course, is to provide an examination of the candidates so that the public can learn who they are and what they think. Under the tyranny of polling, however, the process is reversed, and it's the public that gets examined for the benefit of the candidates.
The effect of this -- on campaigns, as well as on administrations between campaigns -- is an obsession with salesmanship rather than with governance. One reason we've had two decades of throw-away presidents may be the fickleness of consumerism has been transferred to the presidency. Each new model, we're assured, is different and better-tailored to our needs -- and if we're not completely satisifed, an improved replacement, suited to new whims, is guaranteed next time around.
The political process, with the presidency at its center, was intended to play an integrative role in this huge and diverse country, and for a long time it succeeded at meshing far-flung interests and sensitivities into functioning majorities. Polls alone cannot be blamed for the enfeeblement of the modern presidency; but with the opinion surveyors on alert for every new trend, fear and grievance, market-minded presidents are responsive to any dissonance that can get on the charts. Jimmy Carter, with his in-house soothsayers and chameleon shifts on taxes, military pay, the defense budget and debating, didn't introduce this process to American politics. But he has refined it beyond any of his predecessors or current competitors.
The case for ridding American politics of plague of polling is so overwhelming that no elaboration is necessary. But can it be done? Statutory banishment is constitutionally out of reach. But what the victims of the survey industry -- the public, that is -- ought to realize is that polling is extraordinarily vunerable to deliberate dissruptions that can wreck its accuracy, such as it is. Any additional increase in an already skeptical public's high non-response rate would induce statistical distortions that the pollsters find hard to handle. Then, too, phony replies -- just a few of them -- could give the surveyors' computers painful electronic cramps.
Apart from those few government inquires that are obviously useful for sensible governing, such as the census, health surveys and so forth, there's no reason for the public to cooperate with those who would manipulate it. Political polling, whether on issues or candidates, is a commercial enterprise, and no one is obliged to further its sales -- especially when the effect is to contaminate the political process.
With nationwide polls now usually consisting of merely 2,000 to 3,000 respondents, a bit of grass-roots sabotage could produce such side-splitting bloopers that not even a salivating officeseeker would continue to put faith in polling. Remember that when a stanger says, "I'd like to ask you a few questions."