An Embarrassment of Polling Data

An Embarrassment of Polling Data

Are you afraid to answer your phone these days?

With so much attention on Florida (again) in an election season, I have the feeling that upwards of 70 percent of the calls to my landline (yes, I still have one) relate to the campaign. There’s a steady stream of messages, typically recorded, urging me to vote for or against candidate X or, more boldly, to put my time and money into helping candidate Y get elected. Most frustrating are the ones programmed to leave messages on my answering machine (which we rarely use). When someone answers one of these calls, the line goes dead; the computer doesn’t want to talk to a real person.

“Hello? . . . Hello? . . . Hello? . . . Goodbye!”

These calls have even displaced the “special offers” and dire warnings about rising crime (it’s not, at least in my area) or deadly contaminates in the water (it’s fine, too) as the primary kind of communication carried on my landline.

And then there are the polls.

Most are electronic. These often fail to identify who is conducting them. They promise that the poll is comprised of three or six questions (then, of course, there are follow-up questions, but they aren’t really additional questions, right? Oh, and demographic questions, and likelihood of voting, and . . .). Just to see how it was programmed, I once refused to answer a particular question, something every legitimate poll should allow respondents to do. The computer couldn’t handle it and cycled back to that question repeatedly. If I hadn’t hung up, I suspect I’d still be sitting in silence waiting for my computer interrogator to move on.

Most of these poll calls, given their content, are internal polls being conducted on behalf of one candidate or another. The Florida House of Representatives race in my area is a hot one, a relatively rare thing in a state with such carefully-crafted districts, so I get those poll calls. Then there are the calls about an equally hot county-wide County Commission race. Oh, and then there’s this Scott/Crist thing.

Campaigns need this kind of information. It’s essential grist for the tactical adjustments each campaign will make over the next few weeks. It’s former New York City Mayor Ed Koch’s familiar question, “How am I doin’?” on steroids. The answers respondents give will tell consultants and candidates whether their game plan is likely to get them across the goal line by the first Tuesday in November.

The news media also are preoccupied with polls, conducted publicly for their benefit (one way or another). Indeed, in hotly contested states like Florida, we suffer from an embarrassment of riches when it comes to measures of the public’s mind. Quinnipiac, Associated Industries of Florida, Public Policy Polling, Rasmussen, SurveyUSA, Mason-Dixon, University of Florida, CBS News/New York Times, Gravis Marketing, Cherry Communications and the University of South Florida all have released polls in the last few weeks, some more than once (and I’ve probably missed a few). That’s a lot of food for journalistic thought.

So here’s a question: Why do we, as news consumers, care about the polls?

I’m not at all certain that we do, actually. Clearly, however, the news media does. Whether they should, and what the implications of poll-heavy coverage are for the role of the press in electoral politics, comes next . . .