A Polling Perversion

Because public-opinion polling has become so pervasive, few people stop to think that it rests on a precarious foundation of public trust. If people don't want to answer the survey questions, they don't have to. They can simply hang up. And this is happening more and more, according to experts in the field.

A lot of factors contribute to this phenomenon. Some are social or cultural. Many Americans are jaded about the whole idea of polling, feeling that measures of public opinion play too big a role in politics and policymaking.

The idea that answering a pollster's questions can be a form of civic participation also may have faded. The pioneers of polling, like George Gallup, saw their work as an expansion of democracy. Indeed, the information gathered from surveys unquestionably has made politicians more responsive to the people's will.

But polls will cease to have much value if people cease to trust them and those who conduct them. That's where so-called "push polls" come in. These are not real polls at all, but a campaign strategem whereby calls are made by people purporting to be conducting a survey, when their real purpose is to plant negative impressions about a political opponent. For example, a caller might ask how the voter's views might be affected if candidate "X" were known to be a pervert. That's oversimplified, but the basic idea is to sow a seed of doubt about someone.

The American Association of Political Consultants has condemned the practice, as have professional associations of poll takers. They understand that it threatens the legitimate polling their work depends on. The public's willingness to participate is already eroded by the factors mentioned above, as well as by abuses of the telephone medium by pitchsters who use a survey faade to engage potential customers. Push polling could be a final straw.

Beyond that, it's just plain dishonest. A basic rule of sound polling is clearly identifying the caller. If the call is political, the party or campaign should be identified immediately. Then the person picking up the phone knows what's going on.

Both Democratic and Republican Parties should join the professional associations in rejecting push polls. The Clinton campaign has done so. The Dole campaign, which is known to have used the technique during the primaries, has balked. If Dole's handlers, eyeing the character issue, are thinking this may be just too good a tool to cast off, they ought to think again. Use of push polling will taint the character of any campaign that indulges in it.

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