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Some are dragging polls to dangerous depths

Washington Bureau Chieffritz
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By SARA FRITZ

© St. Petersburg Times, published March 6, 2000


LOS ANGELES -- If you were stuck 5 miles from home, would you accept a ride on the back of a motorcycle driven by one of the following men: Al Gore, Bill Bradley, George W. Bush or John McCain?

When 800 likely American voters were asked that question recently, a quarter selected the fifth option: "I'd rather walk."

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This is not a joke. It was, in fact, a question asked by a respected national pollster, Frank Luntz, during an actual voter survey. The rather dubious results of the Luntz poll were published last week on the new Web site of the Young Republican National Federation, YRock.com.

What do we learn about the candidates or about public sentiment from the voters' answer to this polling question? Absolutely nothing. What we do learn from this question and answer is more about the state of the modern polling industry than about the popular view of the candidates.

The question, like most in the YRock survey, was designed to produce an amusing answer and, no doubt, to poke fun at four men who are seeking the Republican and Democratic nominations for president.

In addition, the voters were asked by Luntz which of these men they would choose as the best man in their wedding, which was the most likely to have cheated in college and which would make a better landlord.

Normally, I love political jokes. But I think pollster Frank Luntz is headed down a very dangerous path when he begins to use his polling resources and expertise for the purpose of entertainment.

Polling is already a troubled occupation. Many Americans resent the intrusion of telephone pollsters into their lives and the growing trend among politicians to base their decisions on polling instead of principle.

Columnist and ex-political wife Arianna Huffington, in her popular new book How to Overthrow the Government, argues that polling data often discourage political leaders from tackling problems.

"This completely undermines leadership," she says.

As a result, Huffington is urging Americans to become poll resisters: to refuse to participate in polls entirely. If ordinary citizens resist answering the questions, she reasons, perhaps politicians will stop relying on polls.

The idea of resistance has been gaining adherents for a number of years, ever since the Chicago columnist Mike Royko urged his readers to lie whenever they were interviewed in exit polling.

Does this explain why some polls are inaccurate? Probably not.

Susan Pinkus, polling director for the Los Angeles Times, says the "refusal rate," or the percentage of people who are unwilling to talk to pollsters, has always been higher in California than elsewhere. And that perhaps reflects a libertarian streak among Californians.

But Pinkus sees no signs that the Huffington-Royko protest movement is affecting her results.

In other words, the voters are still taking polling seriously, even though some pollsters are trying to make a joke out of it.

Of course, many pre-primary polls so far this year have been wrong. None of the polls in New Hampshire foreshadowed the overwhelming size of McCain's victory over Bush. Likewise, in South Carolina, the polls understated Bush's strength.

Another controversy surrounding political polling this year concerns when the results of exit polls should be announced.

In one form or another, this has been an issue since 1980, when many California voters stayed away from the polls because the networks declared Ronald Reagan a winner over President Jimmy Carter before the balloting ended on the West Coast.

In response to intense pressure from Congress, the national TV networks agreed two decades ago to stop broadcasting the results of exit polls before the voting ended everywhere. But in recent weeks, that promise has been breached.

Before the Michigan primary, ABC's Peter Jennings and writers for Slate, the online magazine, posted early exit polling information on the Internet while people were still voting in that state. Jennings apologized for his mistake, but Slate editor Jack Shafer defended the move.

To prevent future leaks, Voter News Service, the consortium of news organizations that conducts the exit polls, has announced it will no longer make the most important parts of the exit polling data available to the news media until the balloting is concluded.

Polls are a powerful tool. The people who create them and use them have a bigger responsibility than they seem to recognize.

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