They had me at caller ID. The screen said, “Opinionology ,” but it was the location that made me pick up for what was obviously going to be some kind of a public opinion poll. “Orem, Utah.”
On the line was a woman who promised that she wasn’t selling anything or asking for money. [Promise kept.] Also, she promised, this would be a short opinion poll about current events in Missouri [where I live]. [Promise broken.]
Utah. Current events. I’m already salivating and scrambling to grab paper and pen.
After the prelims about my likeliness to vote, my absentee vs. in-person voting preference and my political leanings, we get down to bidness. My pollster was polite and patient [I stalled a lot and asked for questions to be repeated, because I wanted get it down in my notes.] Here are the questions [in italics], plus my answers. Who do you think is paying for this poll, and how would you respond?
On a scale of 0 to 100 [0=least important, 100=most important], how would you rank the following issues?
-Abortion and gay marriage. Not sure how to rank this issue. It’s the first issues question, and I’m already feeling the push from this poll. I think they want me to give it a high number, and I don’t want to give them the satisfaction. But I do, indeed, think abortion and gay marriage are important—as human rights issues—but I suspect that’s not what this pollster is looking for.] I take the middle ground: 50
-Pocketbook issues/ the cost of gas and housing. Same problem: 50
-Foreign policy/ War in Afghanistan and Iran’s pursuit of nuclear weapons: 75 [mostly because I want out of Afghanistan]
-Fiscal issues: cutting taxes and the deficit. This one is a political tipoff, so I give it a low number, which actually reflects my view on these issues. Taxes are the dues we pay for a civilized society. If you don’t like taxes, don’t call a cop: 10
On a scale of 1 to 10, which of the following candidates would you consider voting for?
-Ron Paul: [Interesting inclusion]: 0
If the November election were held today, which presidential candidate would you vote for? [Possibly/Likely/Definitely]: Obama/Definitely
If the November election were held today, which candidate for U.S. Senate would you vote for? [Possibly/Likely/Definitely]: McCaskill/Definitely [They didn’t mention names. You had to come up with one yourself. I wonder how many Missouri voters, five weeks before the hotly contested Republican primary, can even name one of the candidates?]
What is your opinion of President Obama?
I like him and his policies/I like him but dislike his policies/I dislike him and dislike his policies
How would you describe President Barack Obama, on a scale of 1 to 10?
-President Obama can fix the economy: [Trick question. No President can fix the economy on his own, especially when Congress blocks every move he attempts to make. But if I say he can’t fix the economy, then the pollster can use this data against the President. If I say he can fix the economy, they can say that he hasn’t done what he is empowered to do. Or maybe I’m overthinking this.] I give it a 7, because I think the President could help the economy a lot, if he were allowed to do what is really necessary.
-President Obama is out of touch: 0
How would you describe Mitt Romney?
-Mitt Romney could fix the economy: 0 [Well, he could fix—meaning “rig”-- the economy so that it works beautifully for the top 1%, but I doubt that he has any intention of making things better for the rest of Americans.]
-Mitt Romney is out of touch: 10 [Seriously? They’re asking this question?]
On a scale of 1 to 100, how concerned are you—meaning angry or upset—about the following?
-Politicians who don’t respect the rights of women: 80 [Did they throw in this question to try to give the impression that they’re interested in progressive issues?]
-Providing illegal immigrants with special discounts and scholarships at state universities. [Uh, oh, your prejudice is showing]: 5
-Cap and trade regulations that will drive up the price of energy in America. [Push!]: 2
-Politicians who fight for tax cuts for the rich and deep cuts in Medicare. [Another Trojan horse question]: 80
-China cheating on trade agreements and costing American companies millions of dollars: 3 [Just wanted to give an answer. It’s not an issue I think about very much. You have to wonder why they threw this one in.]
-Efforts to prevent the expansion of energy production in America, which is driving up the cost of gas: 3 [Will Republicans ever stop using the price of gas as a political issue?]
-Politicians who undercut traditional values by supporting gay marriage: 0
-Increasing the national debt and putting the burden on future generations: 0
-Passage of healthcare reform: 0
What does it all mean?
We can speculate as to who is paying for this poll and what they’re looking for. We can make some reasonable assumptions about why certain questions were asked. As to the accuracy of the gathered data, if my attempts at psychoanalyzing the questions and my efforts to game the poll are typical, any trends reported by the pollster would merit a great deal of skepticism.
I recently attended a presentation by an influential Missouri pollster who said that 80 percent of public-opinion polls are inaccurate, and that most published polls are skewed to make a point or to polish the image of the polling organization. The only polls that are at all accurate, he added, are internal polls, because pollsters who want to get paid by candidates can only gain their trust by telling them the truth.
I’m lucky, in a way. I live in a zip code that has a swing voting record and demographics that make it appealing to pollsters. So, although I am clearly in the progressive camp, I get polls, robo calls and mailings from both Democrats and Republicans. I get more than I can respond to. But I read some of the mailings and listen to some of the robocalls, just to get a feel for what’s out there. And, as I did last night, I answer some of the polls. It just seems to me that, in a political world in which campaigns and even ideas are driven, to an alarming extent, by data[and I use that term lightly] from polls, it helps to know how the opinion-shapers are getting their information.
Gloria Shur Bilchik is a freelance writer and community volunteer in St. Louis, Missouri. She is the editor of Occasional Planet. She views the preservation of progressive values as vital to making the US a humane, livable place for her children and grandchildren.