04.15.11

2012 Presidential Election Polls' Dirty Secret

Another poll seems to confirm it: Donald Trump is the GOP's 2012 frontrunner. But Jack Germond says it doesn't mean much—the people surveyed don't know the issues.

This is high season for the poll-takers. In the 19 months leading up to the 2012 election, they will be reporting to us daily, sometimes hourly, on the temperature of the electorate. The dirty little secret is that too often they are passing on misinformation from potential voters who have little or no idea what they are talking about.

There is nothing venal in this. Most Americans seem willing to answer questions from reporters and pollsters when asked. They are flattered to be asked their opinions, and understandably they don’t want to plead ignorance.

So a lot of people are saying, for example, that they are against “ Obamacare,” the term applied by the president’s critics. But if you ask them what they don’t like about the health-care program, they are stuck for an answer.

Don’t forget there are measurable minorities of Americans who will tell you not only that Obama is a Muslim but that the Holocaust never happened and nobody ever landed on the moon. Don’t forget, highly reputable surveys have found Republican voters making Donald Trump their frontrunner for the party’s presidential nomination. Ye Gods!

That should come as no surprise, however, given the scant attention paid to politics. A Pew Research survey the other day found only 33 percent of Democrats and 49 percent of Republicans even know the GOP now controls the House of Representatives. Talk about operating in the dark.

At the moment, a poll shows 62 percent of Americans are opposed to raising the debt ceiling. Does anyone imagine that many citizens know how the debt ceiling works?

Unsurprisingly, the poll-takers don’t talk a lot in public about the ignorance of the electorate on political and public policy matters. And the politicians are not going to disclose the, let’s say, limited body of knowledge in their constituencies. You don’t get elected calling your voters airheads.

Even news organizations are reluctant to call these poll subjects misinformed, perhaps because so many major newspapers and television networks finance their own polls and give their results, however suspect, prominent attention.

In the pragmatic world of politics, the poll findings can be important no matter how shallow they may be. Being “ahead in the polls” is an important credential for a candidate. It helps him or her to raise money and to enlist the support of influential figures who don’t want to be left behind when the train leaves the station.

Politicians are not going to disclose the, let’s say, limited body of knowledge in their constituencies. You don’t get elected calling your voters airheads.

Some candidacies have been founded on polling data that was essentially meaningless. In the preliminaries to the contest for the 2000 Republican presidential nomination, George W. Bush was “ahead in the polls” as the celebrity son of a president and appeared to be running away with the nomination—until his prolonged exposure to the voters in New Hampshire made John McCain seem a better choice by a whopping 18 percent. In the end, of course, Bush’s money produced by early polls and his own tenacity prevailed.

None of this suggests there isn’t some value in measuring popular opinion. It is always interesting to learn which issues are most compelling to voters even when it is no surprise they are preoccupied with the condition of the economy. As voting concerns, by contrast, fewer than 10 percent on each side consider abortion rights a game-breaker.

For political professionals the single most important finding is what is always called “the wrong track number,” derived from the standard question used for years: “In your opinion, is the country (or state) headed in the right direction or off on the wrong track?“

If that number is rising above 50 percent and beyond, incumbents are in trouble. In the immediate aftermath of the first Gulf War in 1991, the wrong track number was below 20 percent and George H.W. Bush seemed a sure thing for a second term. But it rose steadily in 1992 to reach above 70 percent in some surveys, and Bush finally carried only 38 percent of the vote as an incumbent.

Right now the White House is well aware that number is 62 percent.

Maybe we would be happier with a less scientific method. When Louis Armstrong returned 40 years ago from his second trip to Moscow, reporters asked him how the reception he received compared to his earlier trip.

To which Satchmo replied: “I didn’t carry no thermometer but both of them were a bitch.”

Jack Germond has been covering national politics and Washington since 1960. He spent 20 years with the Gannett papers, then eight with the still-lamented Washington Star and more than 20 with the Baltimore Sun. He and his partner Jules Witcover wrote a syndicated column five days a week from 1977 through 2000, and four books about the 1980, 1984, 1988 and 1992 presidential campaigns. Germond's memoir is called Fat Man in a Middle Seat—Forty Years of Covering Politics; he has just completed his first novel. He and his wife Alice live on the Shenandoah River in West Virginia where he enjoys watching the birds and playing the horses.