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Support or illumination?

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If you spend any time keeping up with current events, it should be clear to you that we have become a poll-driven nation. It doesn’t matter whether you watch network or cable news or whether you are one of the handful who rely on print media to attempt to learn what is going on in the world. We Americans have become poll crazy.

I once heard a highly regarded Democratic pollster caution an audience that a skilled practitioner could elicit a pre-determined (and desired) result by how they worded their poll questions. Charming, isn’t it? Pollsters use fancy words such as “bivariate analysis,” “continuous variables” and the ever-popular “dichotomous question,” but in the end, if that pollster was accurate in her admonition, what difference does any of the science make if the questions are often… well… rigged?

Then there is the technique known as “push polling,” which is not really polling (asking questions of a large sample of individuals and attempting to discern public opinion) as it is sophisticated telemarketing. This type of “polling” is frequently used to malign an opposing candidate. Among famous examples is a poll during the 2000 election cycle asking South Carolina voters, “Would you be more likely or less likely to vote for John McCain for president if you knew he had fathered an illegitimate black child?” (McCain and his wife had actually adopted a Bengali girl.) But the intended damage was done.

Polls, by their very nature, seek subjective answers. It is then legitimate to ask, “Who are the people being polled?” Random polls are the most troubling, since many of our fellow citizens lack even base-level knowledge about civics in general — not to mention current events. If you doubt that assessment, just go to YouTube and watch some of Jay Leno’s “man in the street” interviews.

There are legitimate pollsters, to be sure, and they serve an important function. Unfortunately, all too often, today’s polls are used (to quote poet Dylan Thomas), “The same way a drunk uses a lamppost — more for support than for illumination.”