Some opinions on opinion polls

THE Gallup Organization has formed a network of 16 television stations to conduct a series of 44 polls during the presidential election year. More than 96.3 percent of the people we polled said they were not surprised. As if one presidential election were not quite enough, thank you, from now until November '88 we will be subjected to more and more polls from more and more pollsters, predicting the grand outcome.

Winners of political polls swear by their accuracy. If losers question them, well, everybody smiles knowingly, and the pollsters toss out still another stat - their incredibly low margin for error, seldom above 3 percent. Do they arrive at the precise figure by taking a second poll?

With demographics the advanced soft-science it is, 1,200 phone calls will tell you how the whole country is going to vote, even though Coca-Cola and Pepsi - funny thing - cannot agree which drink Americans prefer, despite the efforts of the most conscientious pollsters money can rent.

Something there is that doesn't love a poll, to paraphrase Robert Frost - and with some reason.

Polls are to hard statistics what gossip is to news. And yet more and more polls are taken to be facts - and treated as news, and not just by USA Today, the patron saint of pollsters.

Once you progress from a simple ``Whom will you vote for?'' to vaguer questions - the opinion part of public opinion polls - the data gets treacherously squishy.

``Would you vote for George Bush?'' is a measurable question. ``Do you think George Bush is a wimp?'' is an implied conclusion followed by a question mark. And what do our respondents think ``wimp'' means - anything to the left of Sylvester Stallone, or maybe anything to the right of Alan Alda?

But for your true never-land, trudge across the mist-shrouded boundaries into the boggy country where pollsters ask questions beginning, ``How do you feel...?''

``How do you feel about your job?'' (Did the pollster ask the question on a Monday at 9 o'clock or on a Friday at 5 o'clock?)

``How do you feel about your marriage, your children, your friends, your country on a scale of 1 to 10?''

For the ultimate in vagueness, there is the ever-popular happiness poll: ``Are you happy? Were you happier 10 years ago? Do you expect to be happier 10 years from now?''

As polling and ratings and market research take over our lives, one has a cartoonist's fantasy of half the world lined up against an endless wall labeled ``The Polled,'' while the other half, ``The Pollsters,'' stand with clipboards, asking: ``Do you believe in monogamy, the free-enterprise system, Bill Cosby, and last but not least, the propriety of serving frozen dinners to guests? Blink once for yes. Blink twice for no.''

As polls get softer and softer, they seem to become firmer and firmer in declaring their conclusions. What one-sided scores we are now getting on the most nebulous of subjects! Thus 98 percent of the women responding in the latest Hite report wish ``basic changes'' in their relationships with men, 98 percent want more ``verbal closeness,'' 95 percent complain of ``emotional and psychological harassment.'' Nobody who is paying any attention at all these days doubts that women are less than completely pleased with men. But outside of an election in Chile or the USSR, where can you find a quorum of 98 percent to agree on anything, let alone fuzzily worded descriptions of attitude?

Polls are becoming positively insulting to our intelligence with their pretension to lay bare our collective soul. Even if we assume polls are accurate - a generous assumption - they will tell us we like Michael Dukakis, Dan Rather, and beverages in green bottles one month, and Bob Dole, Tom Brokaw, and beverages in clear bottles the next. In the matters polls deal with most, fashions are brief, hearts are fickle.

But the worst part about polls is that they act, especially in an election year, as if they are part of the democratic process. They are not. They are mirrors that only pretend to reflect. They tell us, not what we think, but what other people think (maybe) - putting subtle pressures on us to join the consensus. In a world where one needs all the time and all the privacy one can get to puzzle things out, the proliferating polls are becoming a public nuisance, mixing up issues from nuclear disarmament to miniskirts in multiple-choice quizzes for a few hundred sample citizens, and then announcing with finality the alleged sentiments of 230 million Americans even before a treaty is formulated or the hemlines actually go up. As one skeptic said over a hundred years ago about the curious ventriloquism of those who presume to project the voice of the people: ``Vox populi - vox humbug.''

A Wednesday and Friday column

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