What Political Polls Show Can Be More Shadow Than Substance
BOSTON — Voters in the United States are angry this year, right?
What if there is little empirical evidence, or accurate exit polls, or significant supportive data to prove conclusively American voters are any more angry than in any other election year?
"Interesting question," said a Washington, D.C., political consultant. He suggested the odd nature of this year's election has muddied the ability to validate several key assumptions held by the press, pollsters, and politicians since the late 1950s.
First, the reliability of polls.
"Results of political polls are shaped by how the questions are asked," said John DiIulio Jr., a professor of politics and public affairs at Princeton University. He said polls, therefore, carry a margin of error and can result in contradictory findings.
A recent Washington Post compilation of political polls between 1952 and 1991 carried this disclaimer in small print: "Margin of sampling error for a sample of 1,500 is plus or minus 3 percentage points, but sampling error is only one of many potential sources of error in surveys."
In addition, polls indicate only how someone feels on a given day. By definition, opinion polls don't seek the sources of opinions.
Second, the electorate.
The US voter is growing older, more mobile, and more multicultural, with less loyalty to the two major parties. "Between presidential elections," said Richard A. Cloward, executive director of 100% Vote: Campaign for Universal Voter Registration,"nearly 50 percent of the population changes addresses." In most states re-registering discourages voters.
The US has always had a record of low voter turnout of eligible voters compared to some European countries.
When Abraham Lincoln was elected to a second term in 1864, voter turnout was only 24.4 percent of the eligible voters. In the general election in 1988 voter turnout was 50.2.
A telephone survey of 2,020 adults by the Times Mirror Center for The People & The Press found that since 1987 "skepticism with the political system has grown more among older people than young."
Slightly under half of people over 50 years old think the "political system needs a major shake-up rather than just a few new leaders, while only little more than a third of young voters feel this way," said the survey.
Third, voter anger.
Almost every US institution - families, Congress, banking, foreign policy, education - is in the throes of change. Anger, or frustration, is evident throughout society not just among the unemployed or aimed only at Congress.
"Pollsters know that most voters do not pay much attention to what politicians really say," said the political consultant, "until the last several weeks of an election. If voters are angry and they want change, why are turnouts for primaries so low?"
If the answer is "because voters are tired of incompetent politicians, tired of voting for them," said the consultant, "then who told them all politicians are incompetent?"
House Speaker Tom Foley recently chided the press for "creating in part a vortex of dissatisfaction" about politics. Curtis B. Gans, director of the Committe for the Study of the American Electorate, contends that "a decline in newspaper reading as the primary source on politics and public affairs," along with other factors, often makes for uninformed voters.
"Everybody is saying this year is different," said Mr. DiIulio, "and if they say it long enough people will believe it. You have people on TV saying to the people who watch TV, 'Boy, are you angry, and this year you are bound to be so angry that you're going to do the following'."
Moreover, he said, "There is always a gap between voter anger picked up on surveys and how voters actually behave. I don't believe in the House elections in l992 that you're going to have any massive change in the control of the House. Everybody hates Congress, but loves their congressman."
A political consultant from California said that voter anger over politicians in fact hides some unpleasant facts in American life.
"Congress is in trouble," he said,"but I see a lot of political hypocrisy in the US these days."
He cited examples such as voters rejecting school bonds to improve schools but approving lotteries and gambling while illiteracy continues to grow; special-interest groups manipulating government for their own ends, and a consumer society which encourages personal debt but criticizes Congress for the national debt.