by Ellen Brandt, Ph.D.
Most Americans group pollsters with telemarketers and bill collectors on their Those-We-Don’t-Care-To-Talk-With roster. And the way most polls are worded, nearly everyone in the country is a “conservative,” a “liberal,” and a “moderate” – all at the same time!
I’ve gotten calls from three or four political polling organizations in the past few days – and turned down every one. In this, I think I am typical of most Americans who don’t represent the political extremes. Unless it’s very close to an important election in our area, we tend to classify pollsters with hucksters selling aluminum siding, charities hoping you’ll help stamp out knee-cap-fungus disease, or that sweet-voiced lady asking you to remit your outrageous electric bill or risk being waylaid by Ninjas.
Which is one of the two major problems with those recent poll results, stating – according to the latest Gallup/USA Today round-up of aggregate polls from 2009 – that 40 percent of Americans call themselves “conservative,” compared with 21 percent self-identifying as “liberal” and 37 percent as “moderate.”
These results do suggest that zealots on the Far Right are now far better organized than zealots on the Far Left. And that the definition of “Far Right” has clearly shifted, since the poll aggregates also say that only 40 percent of Americans self-identify as Republican or “GOP-leaning,” compared to 49 percent saying they’re Democrats or “Democrat-leaning,” while almost 37 percent of these totals say they’re “Independents.”
Huh? Guess that means there are one heckuva lot of “leanings” up for grabs, and that more of those “leanings” proclaim themselves as “conservative” than anything else. But the fact that those identifying with the GOP has not similarly risen clearly shows the so-called “Tea Partiers” – rabid Libertarians who have little in common with the GOP we all grew up with – are dominating the polls and possibly hoodwinking the pollsters.
More about that in a future article.
For now, I’d like you to think about the two main reasons the aggregate political poll results may be so far off-base, they’re in outer space.
So once again: We in the Sane Centrist Majority tend not to talk to political pollsters, because we’re concerned about privacy, don’t really trust them, and have other things on our minds besides standing on a soapbox screaming.
Extremists, however – or those with a one-dominant-issue focus, whether it’s abortion or gay marriage or gun control or banning farm-raised catfish – will gladly expound their views to any pollster who calls them. When we’re talking about average poll samples for Gallup/USA Today of only about 1,000 individuals, there’s the possibly for some outrageous sample skewing, no matter how “scientific” the pollsters believe their methodologies are.
Being both security-conscious and privacy-oriented, I have my own particular little “script” when someone I don’t know telephones me. First I say, “You know I’m on the Do Not Call list” – which is true. A legitimate pollster will cite the exemption for political polls from Do Not Call protocols.
Then I insist that the caller tell me who the client is for the poll in question. Close to election time, the pollster may name a specific candidate or ballot proposal interest group as the client. In that case, I am generally happy to answer. And I’d likewise happily answer polls for the GOP National Committee – or for that matter, the Democratic National Committee, despite being a Republican – as well as for a respected interest group or publication.
But every one of the recent pollsters I’ve heard from – Yes, including Gallup and Rasmussen – have categorically refused to say which of their clients commissioned their polls. So I’ve refused to participate – and so will many others who think of themselves as “in the Middle.” Our rationale is that if the polling organization wants to keep their client a secret, the poll may be consciously or unconsciously skewed to reflect the interests of that client and the outcome the client desires. Call it “good business relationship-building.” But we skeptical and cautious potential subjects don’t like it.
Soapbox Nellies or Nelsons, on the other hand, tend to respond to every pollster who comes calling, cheerfully becoming part of the 1,000-citizen sample. I’d wager a lot of them go off on tangents. Can’t you imagine a beleaguered pollster trying to rein them in? “Yes, Bob, you make a very good case for Key West seceding from the Union. But are you a conservative, liberal, or moderate?”
We Support A Strong Military, Well-Trained Teachers, and The League of Women Voters
Another major problem with these vague “What’s your political orientation?” polls is that unless the pollster in question painstakingly defines the terms being used, virtually no two individuals will think of the words and phrases being discussed in the exact same way. In fact, most people’s personal interpretations of “conservative” or “liberal” or “moderate” may change daily or hourly, depending on what they last read, which TV show they just watched, or which obnoxious relative or neighbor last ticked them off with their off-the-wall theories.
For instance, if your dotty Cousin Emma just told you she thinks her chihuahua Pixie deserves the vote, and you interpret that as a “liberal” stance, you might not care to identify yourself as “liberal” when a pollster calls.
If Clark Kent III, on Super-Freedom Radio, just said he advocates arming every six-year-old with a can of Mace, and he proclaims himself an “average conservative,” you might not feel too charitable towards conservatives on that particular day.
Or if the newscasts feature sound bites from Commentators X, Y, and Z calling Senator Petunia Smith-Jones a DINO, a RINO, or even a WINO, because she had the audacity to cross party lines on a particular piece of legislation, you may be wary of self-identifying with “moderates” at that moment.
Of course, the terms “liberal” and “conservative” and “moderate” have numerous semantic interpretations to begin with. In fact, there are probably as many interpretations of these broad and loaded terms as there are individual U.S. citizens.
I’d guess that most Americans think of ourselves as “conservative” when it comes to believing in a strong defense that prevents us from being invaded or subverted by international – or perhaps intergalactic – enemies. And we’re certainly conservative in the terms’s root sense: We want to conserve and preserve our nation’s assets and resources and values – as well as our own.
At the same time, most Americans see themselves as “liberal” in the sense of supporting freedom of expression, freedom of religious belief, and freedom to pursue our separate and equal forms of “happiness,” provided they’re legal, moral, and non-fattening. Most of us favor such universal goals as a good educational system, support for scientific research, and providing some sort of “safety net” for the poorest among us.
Yet the majority of Americans are “moderate” when it comes to overseeing our various institutional frameworks, making sure that they work for everyone, not just the favored few. So we’re happy that the League of Women Voters, rather than the League of People With Large Mansions and Private Planes, monitors our election venues. And that every level of our governmental process provides for at least some basic checks and balances to prevent abuse.
While I’m sure the political pollsters understand the difficulty of defining loaded terms like “liberal” or “moderate” or “conservative,” rarely – in my own experience, never – do they make the slightest attempt to guide poll respondents to some universal definition of such terms that might actually give their aggregate polls some value beyond pleasing their (secret) clients or providing catchy headlines for the evening news.
Until they do, take all such polls with one humongous grain of salt.
Tell Us What You Think:
***Do you tend to respond to political polls, or are you cautious about them?
***Have you ever had a particularly upsetting, amusing, or simply strange encounter with a telephone pollster? Tell us about it.
***Have you ever worked as a political pollster yourself? Tell us about that experience.
***What do you think typical Americans mean when they say they’re “moderate” or “conservative” or “liberal?” Do you agree that personal interpretations of these terms are all over the map?
***Have you ever regretted what you said to a pollster? Did you feel you were misinterpreted or that you revealed something you would rather not have revealed?
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