Are Polls Being Used To Manipulate The American Public?
by Daniel T. Zanoza

It's been said many times. Some politicians, like our current president, govern according to polls.

Unfortunately, this statement seems to be a bit more than hyperbole. But, if much of government policy depends upon polling data, can we then say pollsters control American domestic and foreign policy. And, if the results of a poll can be manipulated to obtain a desired result, can we also assume true political power may lie with individuals we do not elect.

If you are like me, there have been times when the results of a supposedly reputable poll seemed unbelievable. For example, during the impeachment of Bill Clinton, many polls were taken gauging whether the public felt the beleaguered President should stay in office. In fact, Clinton's re-electionin 1996 may have been, in part, directly attributed to polling data.

Democrats reacted to what appeared to be an ambiguity on behalf of the public. With there being no clear mandate calling for Clinton to step down, Democratic leadership stayed the course and, in unison, did not break ranks.

Therefore, it can be reasonably asserted pollsters saved the presidency of Bill Clinton. Polling created what, I believe, was a false impression concerning Clinton's popularity and job performance. But the Democrats, temporarily, won a high stakes wager. Today, the Party is paying the price for refusing to do the right thing regarding Clinton. Al Gore is burdened with the sins of the father. And, since Mr. Clinton never paid a price for his legal and ethical wrongdoing, Gore is now being handed a political tab which is past due.

I feel the polls were skillfully used to bolster Bill Clinton's threatened presidency and the public needs to be made aware of the many ways polling can be directed to produce a desired response. As you might guess, it is easy to influence the results of a poll. For example, small changes in sentence structure, a word here and there, and the public can be led to respond in a predetermined manner.

For instance, during the messy scandal involving Monica Lewinsky, American led forces bombed what was alleged to be an arms factory in the Sudan. Also attacked were suspected terrorist sites in Afghanistan. Some political observers charged the U.S. led NATO action violated international law by waging a military campaign against sovereign regimes without proper cause. 

It was later revealed the Sudanese facility was, most likely, an aspirin factory. Some critics in America charged the Clinton administration used the military strike to deflect attention from his legal and political problems revolving around the Monica Lewinsky scandal. 

Shortly after the bombing, I contacted Tom Johnson, the President and CEO of CNN, to see if their polling revealed the public also believed the President's action was related to his political problems. Mr. Johnson had CNN's chief pollster, Keating Holland, call me. To my astonishment, Holland told me they had not asked that question. At least it wasn't asked directly.

Holland faxed me a copy of the most recent CNN poll and it confirmed my worst fears about polling in America. The questionnaire was fifteen pages long and consisted of 22 questions concerning the performance of the President and Congress, along with related matters.

I felt there should have been at least one unambiguous question about those recent events, such as: Do you think the President's military action against Afghanistan and the Sudan had anything to do with his current political situation concerning Monica Lewinsky?

Well, to my surprise, CNN's poll did not take this tact. In fact, the question was presented in such a manner that would give Mr. Clinton a huge advantage. CNN's question was: "Why do you, personally, think Bill Clinton ordered today's military strike? Solely because he felt it was in the best interests of the country, or in part to divert public attention away from the Monica Lewinsky controversy?" Holland thought there was nothing wrong with the way this question was phrased.

Now I must admit Tom Johnson, as always, was completely forthcoming with me and he certainly didn't have to be. But, when I confronted him with what I saw as a blatant attempt to skew the results of such an important query, he referred me back to Holland.

Mr. Holland had the audacity to tell me CNN's version of the question would elicit a more fair response. Of course, Holland was trying to cover his tracks. Most reasonable people would hope the President of the United States was doing something "in the best interests of the country"--as CNN's query implied. It is also obvious, to be fair, the CNN poll should have used a question similar to mine, in order to obtain a more accurate response.

The very next day, the national media announced the American people had faith Bill Clinton's decision to take military action against Afghanistan and the Sudan was not a political ploy. The polling results were repeated time and time again, on the radio, over television and in local newspapers.

Ultimately, the poll helped Bill Clinton keep his presidency. Politicians interpreted such data as an indication Clinton was still very popular. The poll told them the public believed their President was still able to govern, though he was under the pressure of impending impeachment.

If the question were phrased properly, the President's fate may have been drastically altered. I believe most people felt Clinton had bombed two sovereign nations to divert attention away from the scandal which plagued him. A different result might have given politicians an insight into wavering public support for Clinton which could have then instilled Democrats with the political courage to call for his resignation. Those who remember Watergate will recall it was the Republicans who eventually convinced Richard Nixon to resign his presidency. Perhaps if polling were as influential in the 1970s, as it is today, Nixon might have completed his term in office.

Some may say my assertions are nothing more than sour grapes. However, my only objective is to expose what, I feel, is a direct threat to our democratic form of government.

During the last seven and a half years, we have lived through an administration which determines national policy by holding a moist finger up to the political wind. And, even if polls could be trusted, American government should not and cannot adhere to the whims of a poll. After all, many believe our nation would have never cast away the shackles of slavery--if national policy were determined by an opinion poll. And, before the United States entered World War II, most Americans were opposed to the nation joining the fight against Adolph Hitler's Germany and Imperial Japan. 

Indeed, we might still be a colony of Mother England, if the Founding Fathers had determined their actions according to a mere majority of public sentiment. Most certainly, there are less Earth shattering examples of how polls may be manipulated. Timing may also play a significant role in polling.

Traditionally, a candidate gets a bump in the polls after a convention. And, shortly following the Republican convention in Philadelphia, George W. Bush reportedly had as much as a 16 percentage point lead, which was consistent with data obtained up to that time. In contrast, polling results were unfairly timed to correspond with the height of news coverage during the Democratic convention in Los Angeles. Although few Americans watched the Democratic convention, we are supposed to believe Al Gore now leads George Bush in the polls. Gore was given the luxury of receiving his bump during the convention which, I believe, produced inflated positive numbers for the Vice-president.

The greater problem is, the networks are turning to polls more and more.  Polls the liberal-dominated mainstream press want you to hear receive a great deal of publicity. Data, which is contrary to political correctness, receives little attention. It's yet another tactic the news media is using, quite successfully, to form public opinion.

My only warning to you is BEWARE. Do not believe all you hear and see concerning polling. Remember, in 1996, polls told us Bill Clinton was beating Bob Dole by a landslide. Subsequently, many Dole supporters stayed home because they thought the race was over. In actuality, Clinton won that election with 49% of the popular vote to Doles 43%. Dole lost by a mere 6% of the vote and the rest is history.

Polls? My late mother-in-law had a favorite saying which I think is very apropos. "Consider the source." So, before abiding by the results of any poll, take my mother-in-laws advice and ...

Copyright 2000 Daniel T. Zanoza

 

 

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