The Art of the Poll

How Americans are made to say the right thing.

When the Strib poll gets down to cases, the picture grows murkier still. Asked to assess particular politicians, the respondents gave the best marks to Clinton and Colin Powell; taking into account the poll's margin of error, no one else in the Republican baker's dozen had favorable ratings that outweighed their negatives. The leading brand names of the professed Republican revolution, Gingrich and Gramm, were among the most conspicuously disliked, by a 3-1 margin in the case of the former and by 14 points in the latter. Republicans were deemed marginally more beholden to "special interests" than Democrats. The resulting analysis could as easily have been headlined "Minnesotans Think Republicans Are Going Too Far," but the salient and distinctly unuseable point is that there's no telling what it all adds up to.

If the most important job of pollsters is to pluck the appearance of consensus from the reality of flux and division, the most vexing problem is how to put the best face on growing public revulsion with the entire system. The disaffection is useable when it translates as contempt for a federal apparatus that the present regime means to dismantle. In this regard a survey released last December by the Center for the Study of Policy Attitudes speaks volumes: 80 percent of those polled said that government has an obligation to do away with poverty, but only 19 percent said the government could be trusted to do what's right. They estimated that 53 cents of every welfare dollar goes to bureaucratic overhead; the real figure is 12 cents.

Conversely, public disgust is unuseable when it manifests as contempt for the priorities and values of the system itself. So the token "alienation" question, a staple of most polls, rarely gives people a chance to put it that way. Or publicizes the results if they do. Two examples.

§ In 1992 the American Viewpoints Survey asked 1,000 voters if they agreed with the following statement: "The entire political system is broken. It is run by insiders who do not listen to working people and are incapable of solving our problems." Seventy-three percent agreed; I saw note of it only in the British Guardian Weekly.

§ A year earlier the Wall Street Journal measured assent to this proposition: "The economic and political systems of this country are stacked against people like me." That 59 percent thought so was reported days after the original poll story in a back-page item.

The most recent Minnesota Poll contains an interesting spin on the alienation question. "Sometimes politics and government seem so complicated that a person like me can't really understand what's going on." Yes, said 64 percent. There are less punitive ways to pose essentially the same question: "Politics seems to have so little to do with my life that I have trouble paying attention to it," or "Politicians speak a language that manages to say nothing of relevance to me." But how would anyone use that? A managerial democracy beyond the ken of a distracted public is very different from a vote of no confidence, even if the difference is all in the asking.

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