The Pollster Paradox 

How Polling Is Helping Minorities

Foolishly, my grandparents named their first dog "Dewey." They had picked up the puppy the evening of the 1948 elections. All of the papers and pollsters had confidently predicted that Thomas Dewey would thump Harry S. Truman in the presidential election. Famously, dozens of newspaper publishers pre-printed six-inch headlines declaring, "Dewey Wins!" It was as if the actual vote did not even matter. Likewise, my grandparents jumped on the bandwagon and named their new dog after the incoming president.

With this singular exception, Gallup Polls have correctly predicted the outcome for presidential elections since 1936. Amazingly, these surveys are often conducted with a random sample of only 1000 people. Inevitably, it raises the question, why don't we simply have 1000 random people decide our elections?

"You don't need to drink the whole bowl of soup to know if it's hot; one spoonful is enough," says Charles Franklin, a political science professor at the University of Wisconsin and expert on polling.

With technological advents and telephones in 95% of America's homes, polling has proliferated in the past decade. There were more than 1400 non-partisan polls conducted for the last presidential election--a near four-fold jump from the previous election.

Polls have dramatically shifted the lines of communication between candidates and voters. As recently as a decade ago, say political analysts, candidates relied on contact with community leaders and glad-handing their constituents. But the swollen importance and prevalence of polling has pushed personal contact out of campaigning. Instead, direct ad campaigns--especially television ads--are the new rule of campaigns. Candidates poll to delineate demographics and uncover hot-button issues; in turn, they respond with specific-issue TV ads.

In Oregon this election season, for example, incumbent Gordon Smith refused several requests for live debates. In lieu of town hall debates that would have allowed voters a chance to directly question the candidates, Smith's campaign spent millions on independent polls and television ads.

This development in campaigning is both good and bad, says Franklin. "The dilemma is that you don't want candidates to be empty vessels filled with whatever the public wants," he explains, "but you do want them to be more responsive."

Traditionally, candidates ventured only into familiar and friendly demographics. But polls offer candidates a much broader perspective on the voting public. This election, Smith, who spent much of his political career aligned with conservative anti-gay groups like the OCA, has actively courted gay and lesbian voters. Although many longtime gay rights activists remain skeptical, Smith has earned endorsements from national gay right organizations.

Other growing demographics, like the Latino population, have also benefited from candidates' reliance on polls. It is estimated that a disproportionate amount has been directed this year at courting Latino voters--some local campaigns allegedly have spent as much as one of four dollars on Spanish-speaking ads.

The drawback, admit political analysts, is that smaller demographics can be overlooked. Quite simply, it is not as efficient to court those groups.

"Campaigns are better able to target their voters and tune their strategies," offers Franklin. "I don't imagine that campaigns ever will go back to grassroots face-to-face campaigns."

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