[lit-ideas] Re: interaction of polls and public opinion

  • From: "John McCreery" <john.mccreery@xxxxxxxxx>
  • To: lit-ideas@xxxxxxxxxxxxx
  • Date: Sun, 12 Nov 2006 11:26:16 +0900

On 11/12/06, Ursula Stange <Ursula@xxxxxxxxxx> wrote:

John's analysis is explanatory here as well.   Not everyone will come

Not mine, I'm afraid, Gene McCracken's. But thanks for the opening.
Allow me a slightly different tack.

Eric asks a perfectly good question: Does polling itself affect
events? The issue is how to answer it. If the answer is yes or no,
supported only by anecdote and a priori reasoning--what we might call
the usual mode of philosophical or pre-scientific thinking--it won't
be worth much. The right way to frame the problem is "How much? And by
what mechanisms?" The answer may then teach us something we didn't
assume at the start.

"How much?" turns out to be highly problematic? Eric directs our
attention to a TV poll, which, as I read him, means poll results
reported on TV, probably during a TV news program. If it has any
impact at all, that impact is tempered by context, what comes before
and after it, our opinion, if we have one concerning the polling
organization and whether the results touch is one of our hot-button
issues, and, of course, the spin put on the results by those who
comment on them. If the program leads with, say, Britney Spears'
divorce (headlined on CNN the day after the U.S. elections) and the
poll is used as filler, that's one case. If the poll is the hot topic
of the day, that's another. I am sure that anyone here can easily make
up more scenarios.

The question by what mechanisms turns out to be equally, if not more
messy. Consider, for example, a real case. James Webb is running
against George Allen in Virginia. Two months ago Webb is trailing 30
points in the polls, Allen is a leading contender for the Republican
presidential nomination in 2008. Then Webb's numbers start to rise.
One effect is that folks like your author start hitting their credit
cards for contributions to the Webb campaign. The news that Webb has
gone neck and neck with Allen and is starting to beat Allen at the
fund-raising came brings them back for a second hit. In the meantime
Allen has had his "macaca" moment and fumbled the question of his
Jewish heritage. His campaign's attempt to make an issue of some of
the, yes, pretty gross (reality often is that way) descriptions in
Webb's novels backfires, drawing snears from even the Washington Times
and other conservative publications. The Democratic Senate Campaign
Committee notices a good chance here and comes on board with enough
additional cash that Webb goes into the final week with 3 million
dollars to Allen's 2. At the end of the day, Webb wins by around 7,000
votes in an election in which over 2 million ballots were cast. Did
the polls play a part in this outcome? Of course they did, but only as
one element in a complex process of which this description is only a
brief and, in some respects, probably erroneous outline. Sorting out
what actually happened is going to keep historians busy for quite some



John McCreery
The Word Works, Ltd., Yokohama, JAPAN

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