The Poll-arization of Politics

May 25, 2011

Public opinion polling is a critical aspect of the political process.  Campaigns leverage internal polls to influence candidate messaging and advertisements.  News organizations leverage polls to develop headlines and questions for elected officials during shows.  Political parties use carefully scripted polls to craft attack messages against opponents or reinforce core ideals.  But are there too many polls?  And do both media and elected officials overuse polls when discussing and crafting legislative initiatives?

Technological advances have exponentially increased the speed with which polls are taken and distributed.  While polls previously involved time consuming phone calls and hand-written calculations, they are much more cost-efficient and easier to conduct with the Internet, robo-calls, and easy-to-use statistical programs.  In addition, opinion polling previously revolved around major national debates and upcoming elections.  Now any issue that garners even a glimpse of national media attention will have a poll wrapped around it within 24 hours.

Anyone who has taken even one political science course understands the ways in which pollsters can manipulate poll results.  The phrasing of questions and the order in which questions are asked significantly influence results.   When news organizations discuss polls over the air, rarely do they discuss how the questions were worded, the order in which they were worded, the sample size of the poll, or the statistical confidence.  Most importantly for every poll issued, an opponent – either a candidate or an advocacy group – can develop a competing poll and skew its results in order to support their position.  This renders objective polls meaningless.

In addition, opponents of legislative initiatives, whether originated from the right or the left, love to attack legislation on the grounds that it lacks a mandate from the American public.  But it is important to remember that America is not a democracy in its purest sense, and that was on purpose.

James Madison, the father of the U.S. Constitution, said it best in Federalist #10:

Hence it is that such democracies have ever been spectacles of turbulence and contention; have ever been found incompatible with personal security or the rights of property; and have in general been as short in their lives as they have been violent in their deaths.

Our founding fathers never intended on having elected officials legislate based on the day-to-day whims of their constituents.  Certainly they can, and should, listen to constituent opinions at town halls or from office contacts, but legislation needs to be based on the public’s best interests in the long-run.  And since Members of Congress and their staffs are often the most informed about the details and implications of pending legislation, they are entrusted to make difficult decisions, whether popular at that moment or not.

The media needs to spend more time informing the public on the specifics of legislation, instead of regurgitating meaningless poll numbers that only incite emotion.  While poll numbers help ratings, and score political points, they erode intelligent debate and cripple our legislative process.

Editor Note:  Please note this article is in no way a reaction to current legislation in either chamber.  This article is analyzing an aggregation of legislative initiatives over many years.