Medicine Men


It often seems to me that the pollster more-or-less plays the role of witchdoctor in American politics. Ezra, for example, reflects on yesterday’s business with Celinda Lake:

This poll wanted a result. It got it. It also could have gotten the opposite result. This happens all the time. It just depends on who’s paying, and what they want to show. It’s certainly true that good polling can be and often is, conducted, but far too much of it is of this type, and nether the polling industry nor the media polices these practices.

Right. For some reason, every advocacy group in town now-and-again stages an event where it commissions a poll with a reputable firm, the firm asks some questions designed to generate the result that the group’s agenda is popular, and then it gets written up as a press release. All we learn from an exercise like this is that with proper framing you can get a poll to say just about anything. And everyone knows that. And given that the whole thing is fundamentally bogus, there’s really no reason one should need to bother with the expense of hiring a reputable polling firm. You could just give me fifty bucks to make something up instead. A good pollster would be worth hiring if you really wanted an accurate read on public opinion, but that’s not really the point in these situations. It’s just a kind of ritual laying-on of hands.