Sunday, June 21, 2015

Taking the Pulse of the Nation: Polling Foibles

Stepping outside the Constitutional Convention  Benjamin Franklin was confronted by a woman who asked  what sort of government the delegates had chosen for the new American nation. "A Republic," Franklin replied. "If you can keep it."

Franklin knew, although we sometimes forget, we do not have a democracy; we have a republic. The public votes for representatives but the public does not vote on every issue. (Except, sometimes, in New Hampshire.)

How could we?  From treaties about nuclear armaments and nuclear test bans to the complexities of health care legislation, to knotty problems like the line between abortion and infanticide to whether or not we should build the Keystone pipeline, to immigration rules to the trade agreement with the far East, to questions about restrictions on guns, the public is either insufficiently informed, insufficiently attentive or simply confused.

Senators and Congressmen, TV pundits--David Brooks and Mark Shields come to mind--all rely heavily on polls when they say, "Eighty two percent of the American public believe..." 

But, as Clif Zukin points out in today's New York Times, polling ain't what it used to be. As recent votes in Britain and Israel demonstrated, polling predictions of close races turned out to be blow outs instead, and none of the polls predicted the Republican sweep in the midterms here in the USA. And this is just election polling; opinion polling may be even more inaccurate.

But polls are all we've got when a Senator Ted Cruz claims Americans believe this or that--we can say, "Well, that's what you'd like to believe." If he can cite  a poll, some number he can quote, well then he speaks the Truth.

But two big shifts have wreaked havoc on what can be determined by polling:  1. A new resistance on the part of citizens to respond to polls.  2. Cell phones.

Gone are the days when pollsters went door to door; the telephone offered a convenient, less labor intensive, inexpensive way to grab someone and ask questions.  The advent of answering machines and then caller ID made that more difficult--who wants to stop watching the Patriots to answer a call from Gallup or Pew? And then came cell phones, which magnified the problem, because you could no longer know where a person lived by the area code (making predicting elections more problematic) and people don't answer cell phones the way they once answered landlines, so even opinion polling is fraught with problems. 

I took a course in college once about the science of surveying, the way you can use probability and statistics to make small numbers, thousands, speak for millions.  And one thing I learned is not only is the method of reaching people important--the techniques by which random samples are kept random, but the phrasing of questions can turn answers one hundred and eighty degrees.

So one can only sympathize with the elected representative who is trying to vote the way he thinks his voters want him to vote. How can he know what his constituents want?  Do they even know what they want? No wonder the Congress listens to lobbyists: They may not be unbiased, but at least they offer clarity.

In "West Wing" a Senator who was defeated in an election in which his support for a nuclear test ban treaty became a major issue decides to vote against the treaty in a lame duck session. He tells the President, who desperately wants the treaty passed, that as a Senator he has rarely been as sure what his constituents wanted as he was now about the test ban treaty. The Senator thought it was an essential treaty, essential to keep rogue states from getting the bomb--but in good conscience he had to vote the way his constituents had voted.  

Of course, you might ask: how did he know that one issue is what led to his defeat? How can you know when an election is a referendum on a given question?  Exit polls maybe? But can we trust them if we don't know who they selected and how and what the phrasing of the question was?

On the other hand, having suffered through the "warrant" voting in small town New Hampshire, where you are handed a ballot twenty pages long stuffed with questions like whether Mrs. Jones should be allowed to plant tulips on the far side, the town side, of the sidewalk and whether teachers should get a raise and whether the firehouse should get an addition, you realize this is no way to run a government. Somebody has to be paying attention and making informed decisions, some elected someone.

I have a friend who actually goes to the day long town meetings where these ballot questions are discussed. She is a rare and exemplary citizen, the exception who proves the rule. 

Mr. Franklin with his favorite bird

On the other hand, when you say, "Just do what makes sense to you," to an elected official, you get Fred Rice trying to build a bypass road around downtown Hampton because he thinks it's a good way to fight smog.
Rte 1 Hampton Falls headed to Hampton

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