Today’s WTF: Facts are stupid things (and so are voters and the media)

Here’s an article that I missed when it was posted on Politico yesterday. In “How Much Do Voters Know”, Alexander Burns attempts to uncover the reason for the constantly changing and often contradictory poll results that seem to be emerging every day during this election year. SPOILER ALERT: He says it’s ’cause we’re all stupid.

Now, you know that I’m not stupid (at least, I hope you do by now).  And obviously you’re not stupid, otherwise you wouldn’t be here. So when we discuss the “stupid” people in this post, we’re naturally referring to everybody else out there.

To be fair and give credit where it’s due, Burns doesn’t personally assess the intelligence of American voters. He does feature a quote from Democratic poll runner named Tom Jensen, who explains, “The first lesson you learn as a pollster is that people are stupid”. Jeffrey Jones, who works for national polling organization Gallup, put it somewhat more delicately by saying that voters “probably don’t have a whole lot of detailed and specific information about the policies that are being put forward.” No matter how you slice it, from where the pollsters sit, American voters look like a confused mass of uninformed, drooling dumbasses.

The article does a really good job of explaining and illustrating the sort of survey schizophrenia that pollsters have to deal with, and I can see their point. I am the first to agree that a great number of voters probably don’t base their opinions on any well-read grasp of the facts. Because our tendency is to filter out information from sources we don’t like or agree with, many Americans can’t help but end up with a lopsided sort of knowledge base about candidates and current events. You would have to go out of your way a bit to find out how much truth there is behind the news presented to you by almost any media outlet, and many of us simply don’t bother to do that. So, yes, we do have an information problem among voters, and the crazy poll results we see are a clear indicator of this fact.

I won’t go into too much detail about the article itself, since it is a good read and is pretty self-explanatory. I would like to just throw in one other point of my own, however. As stupid as voters may be, there is another group whose stupidity worries me just as much when it comes to poll data – the news media.

Much has been made in the media of the up-and-down approval ratings that voters are giving to President Obama, or to his handling of specific issues. We are seeing the same sort of craziness in the poll results regarding the GOP candidates from day to day. These poll results are usually presented as substantive news, and we’re told that they tell us something important about the upcoming election, or the country’s mood, or whatever. The reality is that, on their own, these polls mean next to nothing.

A poll is a snapshot of a singular moment in time. It doesn’t signify a long-term truth. Just because there’s that one picture from your bachelor party, it doesn’t mean that you always dress like a priest and let some girl dressed like a nun spank you, right? That was a purely rhetorical question, BTW. I really, reeeeally don’t wanna know.

Point is, the way that people feel when they answer a poll question is completely different from the way they may feel the next day, or the next week, or 5 minutes from that moment. To extrapolate any sort of greater meaning, or to apply that to an election that is still months away, doesn’t seem too productive.

I would argue that the incessant reliance on poll data as “news” is, in fact, a counter-productive force where elections are concerned. Sometimes the tidal wave of assumptions offered up by media pundits can overwhelm voters, and affect their behavior. I’ll give you an example from my own experience. In 2010, I did a little bit of “Get Out The Vote” work in support of Ron Klein, who was then the Democratic Representative for my district. That was the year of the Tea Party uprising, and Klein was running against GOP candidate Allen West. Klein had already faced (and defeated) West in 2008. His record of supporting his party had been strong, and I anticipated some decent support for his re-election bid when I started contacting Democratic voters that fall.

What I found when I started talking to people, however, was quite surprising. Some Democrats in my district had already admitted defeat. They saw the news, they read the polls, and they assumed that there was no point fighting the Tea Party wave that was washing over the nation that year. They didn’t say that they were unhappy with Klein, or that they felt he’d done a bad job. But they still felt that the election result was already in the bag, and for many of those I spoke with, they specifically mentioned strong polling for West as justification for their position.

Allen West obviously went on to win that year, by almost the exact same margin by which he lost to Klein in 2008. Many factors were at play, including the enormous amount of advertising that the candidates did (this was one of the most expensive congressional battles in Florida up to that point), the fact that it was a midterm and not a presidential election year (which meant lower voter turnout in general), and the Tea Party’s general influence over the country’s mood that fall. But to hear voters tell me that polls had convinced them of certain defeat, weeks before the vote was even held, was frustrating and disheartening. It makes me wonder how many Democrats simply didn’t bother, because they didn’t figure it would matter even if they did bother.

Polls can be useful tools in politics and government. I can see the value of internal polling if you’re a political candidate, as a means of gauging how effective your ads are, how popular your policies or positions have been, or who’s supporting you and who’s not. Those internal polls, run by campaigns themselves, tend to be very interested in accuracy, and they are serving a very specific purpose. The data collected in these instances isn’t usually meant for general consumption, so they don’t have much influence over anything except an individual candidate’s campaign strategies.

The broader public polls that are taken endlessly, and reported and analyzed and debated endlessly by the media, are a completely different matter. They have become such a focal point in much of the discussion about politics that their significance is becoming wildly exaggerated in the minds of voters. Poll results are not “news” and the media shouldn’t feature them as such. They should serve as background detail only – like side dishes, rather than main courses. And, considering the fact that the voters responding to these polls are all “stupid” anyway,  how valuable can poll results really be?

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