Saturday, September 11, 2004

Poll Dancers

One of the great failings of the media in this era has been the refusal to examine the issues, the objectivity of the facts of allegations put forth by various campaigns, or do much in the way of deeper investigations of real voters and the conditions in which they make decisions. They prefer instead to focus on the "horse race". The reasons for this are several. It's a lot easier. All one has to do is pretend to sit back and assess where one candidate stands relative to another. News organizations can pretend to be objective if they're not actually discussing any issues, or making editorial judgments about what issues to cover, but instead calling the game. This turns the Wolf Blitzers and Peter Jennings of the world into Vin Scullys and Dan Patricks.

The 'black baby' smears against the McCain campaign in 2000 were conducted in part by the use of push polling, that practice where paid pols pose as scientific pollsters but ask loaded questions in order to try to influence the result of the polls. Not just the polls, of course: the point of the poll is to push the voter, not actually get a result. Push polling is a deception, in that it masks a political organization within the seeming objectivity (for whatever that's worth these days) of a news-gathering organization. It's a form of lying and manipulation, which takes the horse race mentality to its logical conclusion. "Would you be more or less likely to want the Red Sox to win the World Series if you knew Pedro Martinez illegally imported llama fur and sold it as school lunches?" "Would you be more or less likely to want Smarty Jones to win the Belmont Stakes if you knew his owner supported thousands of 9/11 orphans?" But that kind of poll question won't change the outcome of an event: push polling will.

So where is the media coverage on the push polling campaign that's going on out there?

What push polling campaign, you might ask?

The Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel reported on August 4th about push polling being done in Wisconsin. The item appeared in a column by Cary spivak and Dan Bice, was only posted to the internet on August 31st, and has received scant attention near as I can tell. (I only spotted this on the excellent web page in their analysis of some state poll results.)

The Journal-Sentinel site requires a (free) subscription, so I'll clip bits of it here in case you don't have the patience to register:

This month, Oregon-based Moore Information called hundreds of [Wisconsin] state residents to ask them questions about the presidential contest.


"Whose position do you think is closer to the truth - those 'veterans who served with John Kerry' and say that he does not deserve the medals that he received, or John Kerry who disagrees with the veterans that he served with and who appear in the ad?"

That is, to put it mildly, a nudge, if not an all-out shove.

Days after conducting the poll, the firm put out a news release nationally, saying it had found that President Bush was slightly ahead of his Democratic challenger in Wisconsin, though the lead was within the 4 percentage point margin of error. The release said the poll was conducted "for our own consumption."


Bob Moore, the firm's president and founder, declined to discuss any of the questions in the poll, including the one on the controversial ads put out by Swift Boat Veterans for Truth.


As for who paid for the poll, Moore said his firm picked up the cost for the single question about which presidential candidate Wisconsin residents support.

He wouldn't disclose who paid for any of the other questions.

"I don't want to open that Pandora's box," said Moore, whose 20-year-old firm does polling for a variety of businesses but handles only Republican political clients.

Actually, Wisconsin law requires pollsters to disclose who is paying them if a person being questioned asks for that info. And - no surprise here - Krajewski swears he repeatedly demanded the info of the questioner, her supervisor and, ultimately, Moore himself.

Moore told us, "I never heard of that law before."

Learn something new every day - even after 20 years in the business.

Is it a surprise that Moore polls only for Republican clients? But they're only doing it for 'their own consumption'. This kind of activity is either electioneering, and needs to be reported to the FEC as such, or in violation of Wisconsin state law, or both.

It's unclear whether the Moore firm was doing this in concert with the Bush campaign or the Swift Boat group or not, but the activity is clearly in support of the smear.

What is not surprising is that this was being done at a time calculated to maximum the effectiveness of the Swift Boat smear. Let's say you're the average undecided Wisconsin voter in early August. You've probably just found out John Kerry was more than just a Vietnam Vet, he's a bona fide hero. You're starting to wonder about the kids in the next town over who got killed in Iraq. It's August and you might not be paying attention much, but all of a sudden an ad shows up in the middle of the Brewers game that says John Kerry faked his injuries and lied to get his medals. That sounds pretty bad, but maybe a bit over the top.

Then you get a call from an "news" organization asking you this question:

"Whose position do you think is closer to the truth - those 'veterans who served with John Kerry' and say that he does not deserve the medals that he received, or John Kerry who disagrees with the veterans that he served with and who appear in the ad?"

...and then you see straight news organizations reporting the Swift Boat allegations without analysis of the factual basis?

Back to the topic at hand: national poll data and the horse-race friendly, fact-checking averse media. The "bandwagon effect" is a well-known feature of electoral behavior, in which people on the fence will tend to go to the candidate they think is more likely to win, because they want to be associated with a winner. It may not be terribly principled, but we're talking about voters who are on the fence after four years of clear divisions in the practices, competence, and policies of the camps involved. It's nevertheless real.

The Time magazine poll that came out after the Republican convention showing a 10% lead for President Bush in a race thought to be neck and neck and "stuck" for ten months is rather suspicious. Without getting into the nuts and bolts of polling methodology or ana analysis of same in the Time poll, it's enough to point out that a good horse race has the horses pulling ahead and then dropping behind to keep each horse's fans on an emotional roller coaster. So much the better to keep tuned in, and so much the worse to stop the roller coaster by pausing to address issues, facts, and so forth.

But there are lots and lots of polls, some done by firms like the Moore company that have very specific political allegiances. The constant release of poll results after results feeds the horse race announcers, who keep out reporting on world events and facts and issues so they can keep in the safe space of pretending to call the ball and strike counts. Oops, mixed sports metaphor.

The continuing use of polls to define the race is just the biggest use of the bandwagon effect. I have suspicions that specific polls are designed to start pushing people into going with the winner, as they are told, and thus making the polls a self-fulfilling prophecy. "Losers" are less likely to show up at the polls if they think their vote won't count. The weird anti-democratic effects of the Electoral College continue to feed these manipulations of voter behavior, further suppressing votes from those "undecided" or who will vote "only if it counts".

A push poll serves two purposes. It pushes voters in one direction, and the bogus results, released to the public, and apparently as valid as any other poll, make that bandwagon go just a bit faster.

And why isn't there reporting about the use of push polling in swing states? Could it be that media outlets don't want the very idea of the poll to be questioned by raising doubts about the truthfulness of the polling? Or that they'd have to make actual factual judgments about which polls are trash, and then have their viewers change channels, the same way I change to ESPN News when I miss the score of the game on ESPN2?

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