We have serious shortages of jobs, of dollars in the federal Treasury and of registered nurses. But when it comes to polls, there is not only no shortage — there is a glut.
Every cable show, neighborhood weekly shopper, AM radio station and Web site seems to have its own public opinion poll. Humorist Bob Orben once asked, “Did you ever get the feeling that the only reason we have elections is to find out if the polls were right?”
Don’t get me wrong. I like polls. My personal favorite is the exit poll, which is conducted every four years on Election Day when we choose a president. Unlike surveys before Election Day, these are not interviews of people who intend to vote and then don’t vote for some reason. No, the exit poll is composed of real live voters fresh from having cast their ballots and free of any post-election “winner bias” (nobody interviewed knows who has won — and not surprisingly, more people often “remember” having voted for a popular winner).
The other appealing feature about exit polls is that because of the large number of completed interviews (17,836 in 2008), you can find out how just about any subgroup in the electorate — probably including left-handed agnostics opposed to same-sex marriage — voted. For example, we found out on Election Day 2008 that a grand total of 7 percent of voters thought the condition of the collapsing U.S. economy was either “excellent” or “good,” and they the voted for John McCain by an almost 3-to-1 margin.
But there is one kind of poll that sets my blood boiling. This is the alleged “poll” that is mailed to you personally by a political party committee or some advocacy group and that features questions that are so loaded that Mickey the Dunce could give you every answer.
One such questionnaire arrived at my home the other day. The accompanying letter, with several “Mr. Shields” sprinkled throughout, told me that our “senators in Congress” needed to learn from me “the priorities and concerns … during this uncertain time for our nation.” It was clearly a matter of some urgency that I answer the enclosed poll and return the completed form to Capitol Hill, where national leaders were waiting to forge a bold, new national agenda.
I was asked to check one of five boxes — agree strongly, agree moderately, disagree moderately, disagree strongly, uncertain — after each of several statements. Here are a few of them: “The federal tax system is too complex,” “Balancing the budget should be an important priority for Congress,” “I believe special interests have too much influence in Washington” and “I do not support an energy plan that will cost American jobs and hurt our economy.” Just how many “disagree strongly” answers do you think those probing inquiries drew?
Of course, these are not polls. Similar “questions” to these are intended only to flatter and engage the reader by supposedly soliciting his valued advice. There is an old fundraising maxim that holds: If you want money, ask for advice; if you want advice, ask for money.
This is not polling. It is fundraising — and such obvious questions are frankly insulting to anyone with an IQ at or above room temperature.
While I will continue to support any and all legitimate public opinion polls, this message is for all political committees and advocacy groups that send phony “polls” with loaded questions. I care not how noble your cause might be or how much I might agree with it — all such correspondence goes directly to the recycling bin.
— Mark Shields is one of the most widely recognized political commentators in the United States. The former Washington Post editorial columnist appears regularly on CNN, on public television and on radio. Click here to contact him.