Polls: What have they become?

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When asked to write this column, I was reminded about a time when political polls were exclusively analytic tools that taught us something useful for campaigns. They were the closely guarded domain of geeks and political insiders seeking a strategic roadmap for a candidate or referendum.

Polls were our little secret and were much more than a ticker tape scoreboard sliding across the screen.

That was then and this is now.

Somewhere along the way, polls also became consumables that were designed for the masses. (Can we blame/credit a few visionaries at Mason-Dixon?)

Of course, most polls never see the light of day outside of a campaign warroom (or conference call) but most of what the public sees/hears/reads about polling today is a different beast altogether. The breaking-news, just-got-a-tweet, ballot-test poll as a consumption item is a little unsettling to those of us who grew up on old time rock-n-roll and saw polls as closely guarded strategic messaging tools.

So who’s doing this and why?

I see three distinct groups who develop and release polls (specifically the head-to-head scoreboard polls) for public consumption:

  • Media outlets. They produce polls to attract readers/viewers and to drive content. CBS News/New York Times hired a polling operation to do Governor’s races all around the country. Why? People like reading about polls. The same people who love ESPN scoreboards also love to see who’s on top in politics. (Is it a coincidence that numbers guy Nate Silver has an ESPN site that also covers politics? Or is it a political site that also covers sports?)  Of course, Florida news outlets are not immune.  The St. Pete Times … uh, I mean, the Tampa Bay Times joined forces with Bay News 9 to do likewise in the Scott v. Crist WWE smack down. Readers love poll stories and they hate poll stories (just read the comments) but they are readers and that’s all that matters.
  • Polling operations. I don’t know if Mason-Dixon was the first to do this, but they were among the first that I am aware of to use surveys as a media tool.  They disseminated polls with and through news outlets while simultaneously building their own brand.  And they did it well.  C’mon, let’s be honest, unless you are from Connecticut or went to school there, how many of us even knew there was University named Quinnipiac a few years ago? You know the name now, don’t you?  (Is Quinnipiac to polling what Gonzaga is to March Madness?) By partnering with funders or using media-driven polls as loss leaders, polling institutions (University-related or not) can drive brand awareness by partnering with and releasing polls to the media.  Even non-pollsters are getting in on the branding act.  (How does one even pronounce a company’s name that begins with a number?  Is it Zero-ptimus?)
  • Those who need to push a narrative. Both campaigns themselves and their institutional supporters can and will release polls in order to drive a narrative.  Amendment X is going to pass.  Amendment X is going to fail.  Charlie Crist has the momentum. Fangate is having no effect. While it may be instinctive to distrust these polls because the purveyors are pushing a narrative, more often than not, the opposite is usually the case. Why? Because organizations that release these polls have longstanding reputations and often rely on pollsters who have likewise. Very few of these folks are willing to put their names or the names of their associations in jeopardy for a quick blip on the radar.  And besides, if the poll does not push the correct narrative, it simply doesn’t get published or “leaked” to the press.

I remember when ESPN first started scrolling box scores across the bottom of the screen.  I distinctly recall being distracted by the constancy of information, the disruption, and the feeling that we should be enjoying the game – really enjoying the game – and not always worrying about who is ahead and who is behind.  Score Alert!  While writing this, I had two calls from friends telling me specifically about new numbers from another pollster…”So and so has Rick Scott up/down by X”…”What do you think? Did you see where fill-in-the-name is now showing Charlie up/down by Y?”

The constancy of keeping score and the desire to know the box scores at all times – it’s a low calorie soda. We hate it for it’s emptiness and we love it because, well, we just love the sweetness and the instant gratification.

Our firm has five polls set to go into the field after the electionThese are for various clients and the data will be used to gain a better understanding of key audiences.  These non-political polls will never be used for public purposes and we will delve deeply into meaning, nuance and lots and lots of data.  We will relish in the fullness of understanding without the fear, promise or desire to share the results with anyone but our clients. I really like that. It’s like a three-hour meal at Bern’s: not just delicious, but deeply satisfying.

And – I just have to admit – I now love the scores scrolling across the bottom of the screen while watching a game, just like I also love watching the ups and downs of the governor’s race or the Amendment 2 fight. Yes, I know it’s important to the future or our state – I get that – but I have come to love both the deep-dive analysis AND the empty calories of the made-for-the-masses head-to-head polls.

I think it’s fair to say if you are reading this on a political blog, you feel exactly the same way.