Polls: momentum, slide, ascendant, leading, trailing, stalled, stable, languishing

By —— Bio and Archives November 18, 2011

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Imagine there’s no polling,
It’s easy if you try.
No tide to tow us,
No Gallup-fostered lie.

Okay, I hate that tune, too, but I propose the thought experiment in all seriousness: If you had seen no polls for the last three months, and heard no campaign analysis based on poll-dependent catchwords such as “momentum”, “slide”, “ascendant”, “leading”, “trailing”, “stalled”, “stable”, and “languishing”, whom would you be favoring in the Republican primaries? Truly to imagine away so much of what has dominated the discourse throughout this period is no simple task, to be sure. However, in any nation governed by elected representatives, failing at least to try to do this is, I suggest, tantamount to abandoning the primary responsibility of citizenship.

Everyone says “polls lie,” or “pollsters can rig the question to get whatever result they want”; and every politician says “the only poll that matters is the one at the ballot box.” And yet polls, and our peculiar fascination with them, continue to dominate political discussion. Every major politician and political party in the democratic universe has a pollster (or several) on the payroll. And when The Drudge Report posts a “Shock Poll” showing Gingrich ahead in Iowa as its lead story (Nov. 17th), Sean Hannity jumps all over it at the opening of his radio show, as though it were breaking news.

It is not merely the numbers that we worship. There is something more insidious that springs from all this obsession with ‘taking the temperature of the public.’ It has to do with the breakdown of the enlightened individualism that was the well-spring of Western democracy, and ultimately of the American form of constitutional republicanism.

So let us begin again with our initial thought experiment, filling it out with sufficient detail to achieve the desired intellectual condition. Through the summer and fall, you have watched some or all of the Republican debates. You have tried to keep up with the daily campaign news. (What is Cain’s 9-9-9 plan, and what are the critics saying about it? Why does Bachmann want to repeal Dodd-Frank? How does Perry defend his position on in-state tuition for the children of illegal immigrants? What would Paul do about Iran’s nuclear quest?) You check out the websites of the candidates whose overall views and/or voting records seem most appealing to you, in search of more details about their proposals. You attend campaign events, when possible, or listen to what the commentators you respect have to say about matters.

But you have heard no poll results. The poll-related catchwords I cited at outset of this article have never been used in connection with any of the candidates. That is to say, as far as you know, no one is “leading” or “trailing,” “rising” or “falling,” because those are quantitative measures, and the race has not been quantified. Furthermore, the specific attentions (positive or negative) that are accorded certain candidates on the basis of their poll-derived “ascendancy,” “stability” or “momentum” have not been so accorded.

Under such conditions, whom would you be supporting? If your honest answer to this question is different from the person you have been ‘leaning towards’ recently, ask yourself why. Perhaps your reason will be something like this: “It’s getting close to the Iowa caucus, and I’m concerned that Candidate X will be swept to the nomination if we conservatives don’t coalesce around the most viable conservative in the field. Candidate Y appears to be that man, so rather than lose the party to X and the moderates, I’ll have to support Y.”

Something like this calculation helps to explain the sudden ‘collapse’ of Michele Bachmann’s numbers in Iowa, or the sudden ‘growth’ of Newt Gingrich’s. The shift rides on the concept of ‘viability.’ The viable, i.e. electable, candidate is the one who, so near the start of actual voting, appears to have poll support competitive with that of the undesired candidate. If you had no access to such numbers, would you have shifted your support? In this way, polls, which in fact measure only where the voters were, have the power to influence where they will be. A relative few people changing their minds can quickly become a slipstream-induced tidal wave. Furthermore, those candidates who have low national poll numbers in the final months have a much more difficult time gaining support in any particular state, as they are regarded as ‘out of it.’

Imagine, once again, that the Iowa caucus were taking place today, under the polling vacuum I have described. Every voter might know how a relative handful of others were going to vote, but no one would feel that he had any idea how the electorate at large was going to vote. That is to say, most voters would wake up on caucus day thinking that their guy (or gal) had a realistic chance of winning, and hence the specter of ‘strategic voting’ would never enter their minds. Furthermore, people who were genuinely undecided would feel free to choose any of the candidates, whereas under the shadow of polls, late deciders will almost certainly choose one of the two or three perceived frontrunners, so as to have a chance of really affecting the outcome.

One might argue that polls, contrary to my view, are valuable precisely in order to prevent voters from ‘wasting’ a vote on someone who, in fact, has no chance of winning. Let’s examine this idea for a moment. On what grounds can we say that someone has no chance of winning? Well, suppose your candidate has not been campaigning in Iowa, has little or no campaign apparatus there, and has recently commented that corn fields are for dummies. Would you need a poll to tell you that he has very little chance of winning in Iowa? Yet aside from such obvious cases, who, in truth, has “no chance of winning”? The “no chance” feeling is itself a product of the perception created by pre-caucus polling, with its attendant buzz-word, “momentum.” Some candidates have “momentum” going into Iowa; others have “lost momentum.”  Momentum, however, insofar as it can be said to exist at all in politics, is, like the polling that gives birth to the notion, strictly and exclusively a measure of what has happened up to now.

If an actual physical object is hurtling downward through the air, the momentum caused by the combination of its mass and its velocity cannot simply vanish or reverse itself. Real momentum is not only a measure of past effects; its existence has a very definite and necessary effect on the future as well. On the other hand, there is absolutely nothing, in theory, which prevents each and every person who told the pollster he would vote for X yesterday from turning around today and voting for Y. Volition—the voluntary decision of each and every individual voter—determines the outcome. Momentum is just another convenient catchword for those who would like to create the illusion of inevitability in a campaign. In other words, “momentum,” like polling, is essentially a tool for creating impressions, impressions which will, it is hoped, influence decisions.

In sum, political polls have two purposes: advertising and fortune-telling. Pollsters are businessmen who are paid to market a product (party, candidate, opinion); or they are the respectable political equivalent of astrologers, freelancers who earn their living by helping to sell newspapers with their amazing ability to see the future. A good astrologer constructs his horoscopes so as to influence the way the gullible reader will interpret the facts of his day. (“Oh look, someone left a quarter in the coffee machine. Hey, didn’t my horoscope say there was money out there for me today?”) A good pollster creates a sense of “momentum” on some issue, which in turn encourages people to change their own behavior, thus reinforcing the perception of momentum produced by the poll.

No, I am not proposing to ban or regulate political polling. I am saying that the democratic peoples of the world have allowed polling to gain a level of influence that far outstrips its real significance. When CNN conducts a poll, it is reported by every news agency. Why? The poll was in effect a publicity stunt produced by CNN to gain viewers by creating the impression that CNN has the pulse of the nation. And yet everyone talks about that publicity stunt as though it were a news item in its own right. Have you picked up the New York Times recently and read the headline, “Fox News declared fair and balanced”? No? And why not? Because “fair and balanced” is not news. It is advertising. There is nothing wrong with that, but we must not lose our perspective on what it really means.

The earliest national polls in the U.S. were explicitly undertaken as publicity stunts by various newspapers. They were sometimes correct, of course, but they had not yet insinuated themselves into the public thought process to the point they have now. As a result, they were sometimes very wrong. We credit modern pollsters with a more scientific method, producing their greater accuracy as evidence. It is just as likely, in my view, that the increasing accuracy is a product of the mass-psychological effects of polling on the post-modern, post-naive voter—one who experiences himself less as an independent decision-maker than as a detached self-pundit, assessing his own shifting opinions as though from an outside, objective point of view.

There is no such thing as momentum in politics. Polls are not election results. They are at most projections, which can only be as accurate as real live voters want them to be. In practical terms, this means the following: No candidate is out of contention, and no poll can cause a candidate to be out of contention.

(On November 5th, 1984, George Foreman became the oldest heavyweight champion by knocking out a younger, better-conditioned boxer, Michael Moorer, in the 10th round—after losing every previous round on the judges’ scorecards. Had a poll been taken in the crowd after the 9th round, it would certainly have concluded that Moorer had the “momentum”.)

We cannot live in the poll-free bubble of my thought experiment, of course; but each adult living in a democratic country has an obligation—to his own soul, in particular—to seek, as far as possible, to approximate that poll-free condition in his own mind and heart. That ‘voting one’s conscience’ is now seen as merely one of several possible approaches to political decision-making is a startling indictment of the fate of the concept of citizenship in the modern world.

What I have outlined so far is merely a particularly grotesque symptom of the death of citizenship, or more specifically of the death of the enlightened individualism that makes responsible citizenship possible. The deeper spiritual hell of the modern anti-citizen will be the subject of the sequel. In the meantime, Tea Partiers, do not settle for less, do not accept the ‘best worst outcome,’ do not imagine that second-worst is the most you can hope for now. It simply isn’t true.

Daren Jonescu -- Bio and Archives | Click to view Comments

Daren Jonescu has a Ph.D. in Philosophy from McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario. He currently teaches English language and philosophy at Changwon National University in South Korea. He can be reached at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address).