Lies, damn lies, and opinion polls

Ask me a question.

JACKSBORO, Texas, June 1, 2012 — Has anyone asked your opinion about anything lately? lf not, just wait. Someone will get to you, probably sooner rather than later, probably just when you’re sitting down to dinner. 

It doesn’t always seem that our opinions are worth much, but on the contrary, they’re worth a great deal. People running for election, whether in local, state or federal races, are desperate to know what the voters think. They comb through polls before making any serious decisions regarding their campaigns.

Companies depend on your opinions when they develop new products and then decide how to market them. The question that consumes campaign directores and corporate upper management alike is, “What must we do to get you to buy our product?”

There are all kinds of polls: straw polls, telephone polls, on-line polls, tracking polls, and once the candidates are beyond all help from polls, the exit poll.

Polls are the medium we use to gather and dissect the opinions of target demographic groups, but do they tell the whole story?

Polls are pretty accurate as they track opinions from day to day and week to week, but as far as predicting what people will do next month, we might as well read tea leaves and chicken entrails. Things come up, opinions change. A terrorist attack or a stock market crash or a major hurricane can spin public opinion on a dime.

More importantly, polls don’t show us how people are making their decisions. Do they have feedback? Do polls influence us in the direction of popular opinion?

Most importantly, polls don’t tell us who the better candidate is. They only tell us which one is more popular. And even that doesn’t always tell us who will win. Andrew Jackson learned that the hard way.

In 1824 a Harrisburg, Pennsylvania newspaper conducted a poll. The poll wasn’t taken in Pennsylvania, but in Delaware. It showed Andrew Jackson to have a commanding lead over John Quincy Adams, and in the election, Jackson beat Adams by almost 80,000 votes. He also won the most popular votes.

But neither candidate mustered enough electoral votes to win. The election was thrown into the House of Representatives, where Jackson lost to Adams. Jackson believe Adams stole the election through a corrupt deal, and he and his followers were bitter.

That newspaper poll was called “the Straw Poll.” It ran every presidential election until 1936, when George Gallup conducted the first national poll.

I watch the polls rather closely. It is like watching a horse race, around each turn there seems to be someone else taking the lead, and if your candidate isn’t in the lead, there is always another presidential debate, or one of then will make some kind of gaff, then the other will lead at lest for a while. The polls don’t tell us who the best candidate really is, or how well he or she will govern the nation. They mostly tell us how we feel about the candidates. They tell us which one we like.

As history will tell us, the majority of the people are not always right.   

When Jesus was brought before Pilate, Pilate said, “having examined him before you, I have found no fault in this man touching those things whereof ye accuse him … I will therefore chastise him and release him.”

But an informal popular poll was held and the people said “Crucify him! Crucify him!” You know the rest of the story. The majority spoke; they crucified him.

So much for the wisdom of majorities. If we don’t think for ourselves and let ourselves go along with the opinions of others, we deserve the worst we can get. But our children don’t, and as that poll 2,000 years ago shows us, the repurcusions can go on for centuries. So don’t let the crowd think for you. Stand up, be a man or be a woman, think, and then choose. 


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