Every four years, just before the presidential election gets underway, all the major news outlets promise they won't do it again. They'll resist the urge to cover the election like it's a horse race, and instead they'll focus on issues. Then, before too long, there they go again, covering the campaign like a horse race, with reporting centering on daily polls and who's ahead. Here's my plea for a poll-free election.
Let's just start out by saying that polls are highly unreliable, except when races aren't very close. How else do you explain the as big as 16-point differences between competing polls that were seen in the weeks just after the Democratic National Convention? In 1996, Clinton's preelection numbers turned out to be way higher than he actually earned at the ballot box, but nobody ever talks about that. And that margin of error? It applies to both candidates, so a & plusmn;4 percent margin of error can add up to a swing of eight points, making the whole exercise somewhat futile. But one person's futility is another person's news hole.
As more and more polls are conducted, the evening news has taken to reporting the poll results as if that is the same as reporting on the actual campaign (which, to be fair, they often do by offering the latest 10-second soundbite from out on the trail). So the plethora of polls manifests itself as even less coverage of the actual issues that there would be otherwise. Instead of polls, we might find out how big the commission windfall would be to Wall Street brokerages if people are allowed to invest their Social Security account. Or just what is actually at stake if oil drilling were to occur in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. Or that the surplus everybody wants to spend is actually just a projection and may never really happen.
Polling also has a corrosive effect on the candidates themselves, as they are loathe to try any new slogan that hasn't been thoroughly tested through focus groups and polling. So we end up with candidates telling us what they think we want to hear. Although the thought of removing the Snake River dams may have never entered your mind, polling somewhere has suggested to Slade Gorton and George Nethercutt that it's probably among your top two or three issues. The problem with these kinds of campaigns is that if we're just hearing what we want, are we getting leadership from our candidates or pandering? If Lyndon Johnson would have followed focus groups, would he have ever taken on the Civil Rights issue?
Still, focus groups and all, Al Gore and George W. Bush have given us a clear choice and touched on an impressive array of subjects along the way. But the national (with a few exceptions) and local media have failed to make any real sense out of it all. Why should they, after all that's why we have pundits. So here's my plea for a pundit-free election.
While pundits would seem to exist to help us understand the consequential issues, they function instead to confuse us with the inconsequential. Pundits are basically journalists who got sick of calling people and getting both sides of the story and instead started packaging their "enlightened" opinions for TV. Unfortunately, balanced, insightful dialog doesn't usually get the best ratings. Luckily, however, talking about how Gore says he invented the Internet (which he never did) or how Bush mangled a word or two does make for good ratings.
Pundits are pack animals, too, and once a leader sets out in a direction, few will leave the pack lest they stop getting invited to the pundit table. This is the dynamic behind the central theme of this race, which was established months ago and has never been reexamined: Bush is dumb and Gore lies. Rather than challenge this preconception, pundits take all campaign news (including poll results) and filter it through this distorted lens.
And not only are pundits often oversimplifying things, they are doing it with a cynical wink. It's like clockwork, after any rousing speech, barely have the applause died down when we hear the voice-over from somebody like George Stephanopoulos dissecting the speech as if everybody knows that not one bit of it was remotely genuine. Whether the cynicism is deserved, it underlines the problem with pundits -- and polls, for that matter.
Politics played this way creates apathy in the electorate for the simple reason that voters are force-fed the message that it's all a game. But don't worry about it, they're also told, so-and-so's already winning, according to the latest poll. In fact, you really don't even need to vote. We bemoan the low voter turnout, yet the media insists on running poll stories every night leading up to Election Day, which in effect argue that the outcome is already set. And the pundits reinforce that message that it's all a big joke being played on you, the taxpaying dupe.
You can get informed if you try, through The New York Times (which has a specific policy limiting the prominence of polling in their coverage), the Washington Post or even in the occasional story picked up in your local daily, but if you're a more passive news consumer, it's easy to only get the inaccurate horse race play-by-play with snide color commentary. But you can fight back. You can ignore the polls and believe that the future does, in part, depend on you. You can turn off the pundits and believe that politicians can actually have something besides avarice in their hearts. And you can confound the whole kooky system by ignoring these de facto pleas to stay home and do the one thing they'd never expect: Vote.
& & & lt;i & Ted S. McGregor, Jr. is the editor of The Inlander. & lt;/i & & lt;/center &