The politics of polling

By JOHN J. MONAGHAN
The Providence Journal

Have the disciples of the evil Karl Rove lost their minds?

Has all the hype that identifies today’s political P.R. people as in-charge geniuses loosened the strings of the current crop of spin-doctors?

Maybe it’s blissful ignorance or plain old arrogance.

But come on, guys. Think about it.


Not that many years ago, the phone would ring at supper time, somebody was trying to peddle aluminum siding or magazines, the public rebelled, Congress legislated a Do-Not-Call List, and people signed up by the millions. Millions! Telemarketers effectively went out of business.

Of course, Congress _ never known to stand firm against lobbies, especially do-gooder lobbies (or their own political interests) exempted charities, pollsters and political candidates.

So now every charity known to man calls at supper time _ and, I’m thinking, with a reception no more gracious than was accorded the siding salesmen. The callers are no less relentless (I shouldn’t say that with such certainty because they rarely get beyond "hello" before I hang up) but they probably reach enough kind-hearted folks to keep the charity solvent and they can suck up the abuse with the conviction that God is on their side even if the surly SOB on the other end of the line is not.

But that’s not political telemarketers. Maybe some Falwell followers and Limbaugh lunkheads would argue that God is on their side. But that’s about it.

Let’s talk about pollsters first. They purport to be after information, and most times they are. Polls conducted by political scientists at colleges and universities are worthwhile. Besides, the caller identifies himself (or herself) as a pollster from the college, and then asks a series of questions, most of which make sense. It’s a good exercise to answer truthfully.

But some of the professional polls verge on the ludicrous. A primary poll for Sen. Lincoln Chafee of Rhode Island was one. The caller identified the polling company. I asked her to identify the client; I always ask that. They know who I am; I want to know who they are. If they won’t or can’t identify the client, I hang up. She said it was Chafee; I said ask away.

She asked whether I’d vote for Chafee or Cranston Mayor Stephen Laffey in the GOP primary. I wondered whether she wanted first to know whether I’d vote in the Republican primary (I wouldn’t).

Gee, she said, that’s not one of the questions. Besides, she said, she’s from Iowa and she doesn’t know anything about Rhode Island politics.

There was more, but let’s draw the curtain. Could be a generalized poll would have trouble pinpointing a decent sample of Republican primary voters in Rhode Island where there are something like 40,000 admitted Republicans. Chafee wasted a bundle on that effort.

Then there’s the computerized political poll. A computer asks the questions. Anyone who answers them is demented. The margin for error in this one must be vast.

I’ve never been called for a "push poll," or maybe, if I have, I hung up before the questions began. The push poll was designed by the nefarious Lee Atwater, political guru to Bush the Father.

It goes like this: The caller says he’s from something like the Independent Data Gathering Survey and will you answer a few questions.

You say "Sure." He wonders if you support Senator Glockenspiel. "We’re solid for the Glock," you say, "We think he’s done wonders for the state. The whole family votes for him."

"Suppose," says the caller, "you were told Senator Glockenspiel was seen last Tuesday in the schoolyard at St. Virginia’s Seminary for Young Ladies, smoking pot and drinking vodka shots with the senior class council, would you be more or less likely to vote for him?"

"What?" you explode, "smoking pot with the girls at St. Ginny’s. We’ll never vote for him again; nobody in the family will."

Notice the caller didn’t say Glockenspiel had done it; he said "suppose you were told." The example is, admittedly, a mite extreme, but you get the idea. Be wary of push polls; listen to those questions.

A lot of guys lie to polltakers, just for fun. I’m not sure how I feel about that, but I am sure that when someone tells me the margin of error is give or take 5 percentage points I don’t believe it. Especially when you know the sample’s skewed in the first place because many of the brightest people I know just hang up.

But back to the original point _ the political telemarketer. The P.R. guys are calling it "voice mail," but it doesn’t smell any rosier with a hi-tech name.

I had a call the other night. "This is (Rhode Island) Governor Lincoln Almond," it began. I knew it wasn’t. The governor has really called on occasion and he says, "Hi, John, it’s Linc Almond."

This call was a tape, I realized, and Almond’s bashing a casino ballot amendment _ something I applaud; we all should bash it _ but I hung up. I don’t listen to tapes.

I had another taped call just before the primary. "My name is Randy and I’m from Pawtucket," he said. "I’m an independent voter but this year … "

That was as far as Randy got; I hung up.

The big-deal candidates do tapes, but so do the little ones. I had a taped call one pre-primary night from John Cullen, who was after a state Senate nomination. I hung up on that one, too.

Clearly this is the latest shtick with the political spin-doctors. TV’s expensive, print is iffy and radio’s iffier. Rallies are old-hat; you’re preaching to the choir. What’s needed is the personal touch; reach out to the voters, let them know you care enough to get in touch tete-a-tete. Tape a message and let a computer do your campaigning. If the voter’s not home, leave the whole taped message on the answering machine, sort of a tape-a-tape.

Hey, political P.R. guys, the people you’re after know there’s nothing personal about it. It’s annoying, it’s intrusive, it’s off-putting. I’m betting that it’s costing your candidates votes.

Why in the world do you suppose millions of people signed up for the Do-Not-Call List? Millions! Sure your lobbyists kept you and yours eligible to make annoying phone calls. But I’m betting that the calls are doing you more harm than good.

There’s one way to find out, of course _ you could take a poll.

(John J. Monaghan is a retired Providence Journal managing editor.)

7 Responses to "The politics of polling"

  1. ebbtide  September 27, 2006 at 1:25 pm

    LMAO! Rick Santorum has been calling me non-stop for weeks. He seems a little insecure this time. He should be–I think he’s going to get creamed.

  2. Joe Lawrence  September 27, 2006 at 6:38 pm

    Mr. John J. Monaghan would do well to take a course in Statistics. Still, though, he would likely still seek to spread the Rethuglican line Rove brings into play, but only when the polls do not further the agenda of the PNAC crowd. Screw them and the political whores they rode in on.

  3. Timothy Richley  September 27, 2006 at 7:53 pm

    I have to wonder if Joe Lawrence read the same post that I did. I read nothing that would lead me to assume that he was pushing the Rove position, to the contrary, he is saying that he thinks the Rove people are very arrogant, and that he thinks that people both lie to pollsters, or hang up. I got no sense at all that he is pushing any political agenda. He is just commenting on polls in general. Joe should lighten up, not every mention of a republician means that a person is in favor of their position. I realize that this is the silly season, but not every comment is directed to one side or the other

  4. G  September 28, 2006 at 2:44 am

    Are these people so stupid that they can’t realize that they’re alienating everyone they call who is on the do-not-call list? I tell each caller that their call is an automatic “No” vote.

  5. Clay  September 28, 2006 at 9:56 pm

    Polsters are posing as if they seek “truth” through survey research. Actually, they are being paid for the information we provide, and the buyer sometimes has a bias. Nothing is free in this world, and we pay dearly for all the ways the information is used that isn’t in our interest.

    Also, the problem with survey research is something called the ecological falacy. Stated briefly, you can generalize from a sample to a population, but it’s incorrect to generalize (or specify) from the sample to an individual you see walking down the street. That’s breaking the rules of statistics, but subconsciously, that is exactly what someone does when they cross the street to avoid someone who physically looks like a criminal, terrorist or illegal immigrent. The authors of the study might ‘abhor’ this misuse of their legitimate work, but it still happens everyday.

  6. poiuy  September 29, 2006 at 1:25 am


    I’ve never been called for a “push poll,” or maybe, if I have, I hung up before the questions began. ”

    sorry to break the news, but you have indeed been called for a push poll.

    the question you described where you were asked which (republican) candidate you would vote for in the (republican) primary was not an example of a sloppily put-together poll which didn’t “make sense”, it was in fact a deliberate attempt to present a false dilemma, causing voters to view republicans as the only options worth considering.

  7. ebbtide  September 29, 2006 at 1:36 pm

    I must be pretty frustrating to these geeks who call me. I respond to all the emotional hot button issues like a loyal brown shirt, and then when it comes to the close, I spring the ‘anybody but Santorum’ response. ;-)

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