Perils of Political Polling

First, do no harm.

The polls for the 2008 Presidential race are in full swing, detailing how John Edwards has surged ahead since the disclosure of his wife’s tragic illness, but not enough to eclipse Hillary (who somehow has managed to almost entirely ditch her last name since entering politics). I’ve gotten my share of calls from pollsters, and every politician lives and dies by those numbers, since one’s ability to raise funds for campaigning is pretty closely tied to how one tracks.

Polls frustrate me. It may be interesting to see how any particular candidate would fare in the election if it were held today, as a measure of current stated positions and name recognition. It may be fun to predict what will happen based on how much we’ve learned. But they’re undeniably dangerous.

High-polling candidates get more coverage in the media, both paid and free. Those that slip tend to tweak their positions to improve their numbers. Everyone claims that polls don’t matter when they’re doing well, and care a great deal about them when they’re doing poorly. Why is it, exactly, that the polls are given such great value, considering that the only poll that has legal significance is the election itself? It’s actually pretty easy to explain: it’s the stupid people.

I’m not saying that people of low intelligence are, as a rule, more likely to use a poll as a guide in their voting decisions; I’m saying that people who are stupid enough not to spend time educating themselves about issues and candidates are. These are the people that are targeted by the commercials that cast the opponent in an unflattering light, literally, as well as in black-and-white with a wide-angle lens that adds twenty pounds. People who are far too lazy to have a clue what the debates over Iraq, illegal immigration, education, and the environment can do to the lives of they and their children. People who will stumble, bleary-eyed, into a voting booth after a long day at the office, basing the decision of their voting franchise on the results of exit polls they heard on the radio. These people scare me.

The right to vote is the right of choice, and it a right that was paid for in the lives of many patriots. Choice is personal. I used to be a critic of people who did not vote, particularly those who complained about the results afterwards. However, I am garnering a new respect for those who choose not to vote, because they do not feel they have educated themselves well enough on the issues. Making a voting choice based on a hunch, commercial, poll, cocktail party conversation, or opportunity to improve one’s chances in bed is guaranteed by the Constitution. If, however, you are not prepared to live with the consequences of that sort of half-witted decision, I implore you to do no harm by making a choice not to vote.

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