Propaganda masquerading as polling

I don’t usually answer the phone unless I know who’s calling. But one day recently I grabbed the phone after the third ring  because I thought it might be my husband and didn’t want to take the time to check caller ID (the answering machine cuts in on the fourth ring). It turned out to be a public opinion poll.

We’ve been getting a lot of those calls lately – something about living in Iowa with a presidential election coming next year. The few times I’ve taken these calls in the past few months (usually because I’m expecting a call and forget to check caller ID before answering), I’ve declined to participate, explaining that I really hadn’t been paying any attention to the candidates yet.

Now it’s getting close enough to caucus time that I am starting to pay a bit more attention. Besides, the woman on the phone seemed friendly, unlike some I have talked to on such calls who display no warmth or personality. Also, I wasn’t in the middle of anything except waiting for a cake to bake. And finally, I like to occasionally participate in a poll just to have an idea what questions people are being asked, so that when I see poll results I have an idea how meaningful they might be.

I don’t think I ever put much stock in poll data, but the marketing class I took in grad school gave me some solid reasons to be skeptical. Marketing directors who really want to do what is best for their company can take certain measures to keep various forms of bias from skewing the data that will direct their marketing efforts. Marketing a product that people really don’t want, even if you can make some profitable sales in the short term, is not the way to build a strong company.

If you’re running a political campaign, however, you probably have far less motivation to find out what the voters really want. The “product” is already determined – that’s the candidate who hired you. Probably you’re convinced he or she is the best candidate, or you wouldn’t be working on the campaign. But regardless of your own opinion, your job is to convince as many people as possible to vote for that person.

So it didn’t surprise me that the poll would try to influence my opinion, rather than just find out what it was. What surprised me was how blatant the bias was. The initial questions were fairly straightforward – my political affiliation (I’m a registered Republican), which caucus I expected to participate in (Republican – I didn’t even know I had a choice), and my opinion of each of the candidates for the Republican nomination (slightly favorable in most cases, except Gingrich whom I cannot imagine myself voting for).

Then there was a new set of questions. If I heard or read a certain statement in the media about a certain candidate, how would it affect the likelihood I would support that candidate? I tried to explain that it would depend in large part on who made the statement and in what context. If the statement was favorable to Perry, for instance, I would give it a lot more credence if it was made by someone trying to give an objective analysis than if it were made by someone from Perry’s campaign.

Apparently the questions weren’t intended to allow for that sort of judgment, however, so I tried to evaluate each one as though it were known to be true. I quickly noticed that every statement about Perry was positive, while almost every statement about other candidates was negative. That is, the statements would be considered positive or negative from the viewpoint of most fiscal and social conservatives. (I did find one about Perry that I decided made me less likely to support him, and one about Gingrich that I reluctantly conceded would make me slightly more likely to support him.)

In the end, however, I couldn’t say that any of the statements changed my views, largely because most of them were not news to me. Perhaps that’s an unnecessary distinction, but I do tend to take things literally. If I am asked, “Would hearing or reading this make your more or less likely to support this candidate?”, I interpret that as meaning that hearing or reading it today make me more or less likely to support the candidate than I would have been yesterday. And if I had already heard or read it, it wouldn’t change my mind today.

I suppose I’m not a good subject for public opinion polls, at least not as they’re conducted today. I analyze everything I’m asked, trying to decide what spin is likely to be put on my answer. And while I try to keep an open mind, I tend to distrust things said by people who have a vested interest in influencing my opinion, whether it’s people conducting political polls or advertising products for sale.

I’m not sorry I took the time to answer the poll, though. If I read about results of it, I’ll know what questions were behind it. And it serves as a good reminded that I do need to get busy finding out more about the candidates so I can make an informed decision – if I can just figure out where to get some reasonably objective information.


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