Political Polls and Political Realities
Current polls show a closer race between Obama and Romney than some conservatives would like. But keep in mind, opinion polls are designed to form and influence voter opinion, not just measure it.
Republican activists at this year’s Values Voters Summit are perplexed that the race between Mitt Romney and Barack Obama remains tight.
According to an AP story from September 15, activist R.J. Robinson put it bluntly: Romney “ought to be killing Obama, and he’s clearly not doing that. He should be doing better.”
Mike Garner, another attendee at this weekend’s conference, elaborated: “If Romney loses this election, the party really needs to do some soul-searching.”
Doubtless, it isn’t only those Republicans who were in attendance at the Values Voters Summit who are losing some heart. GOP voters from across the country are frustrated and anxious as well.
And this is exactly the intended effect of polls that depict this as a tight presidential contest.
The pollster, along with other journalists and politicians, has succeeded in convincing us that he is on a quest for objectivity. He would—and does—have us think that he is concerned with nothing more or less than simply revealing the will of the voter. In reality, however, like his peers in the rest of the media and his counterparts in politics, pollsters shape the voter’s will.
This is not a new insight. The early 20th century conservative political theorist and Harvard professor Joseph Schumpeter established this long ago.
Political coverage is no different from commercial advertising, Schumpeter observed. Consumers “are so amenable to the influence of advertising and other methods of persuasion that producers often seem to dictate to them instead of being directed by them.” Similarly, the voter’s will “is largely not a genuine but a manufactured will.”
In politics and commercial advertising, “we find the same attempts to contact the subconscious.” Both also rely upon “the same technique of creating favorable and unfavorable associations which are the more effective the less rational they are.” Both political and commercial advertising rely upon “the same trick of producing opinion by reiterated assertion”—not “rational argument.”
In other words, the stimuli—like polls—with which the voter is continuously fed are not designed to discover his wants. They are designed to create them.
Yet politics and commercialism are alike in another respect: politics is a form of commercialism.
Political journalists, pundits, pollsters and the corporations that they serve have a deeply invested monetary interest in doing all that they can to arouse, as much as possible, the enthusiasms of audiences. A presidential election season, more so than anything else, provides them that opportunity, for it is only during such times that Americans from coast to coast take at least some interest in the political life of their nation.
Since, then, it is only once every four years that a presidential race is held, it is a no brainer that media figures should use every ounce of their power and influence to render it as exciting as possible. Like anything that excites consumers, exciting politics sells.
And a tight presidential race is more exciting politics than one that is not so tight.
Bear all of this in mind as we make a few notes.
First, in 2008, Obama beat John McCain by seven points. This was a decisive victory, yes, but not anything at all like a landslide. And this was at a juncture when the aged, debilitated McCain was as powerful a symbol of the GOP fatigue pervading the country as was the unknown, youthful, and charismatic Obama a symbol of the equally pervasive hope for a new course of direction.
Still, Obama couldn’t best McCain by more than seven points.
Second, Obama now has a record—a record of which no one who is not an Obama loyalist has anything very good to say. In truth, it is a bad record. He and his supporters can claim all day long that Obama inherited it from his predecessor, but the reality is that the economy that Obama inherited isn’t nearly as bad as the one over which he presides.
Many people—most, I think it is fair to say—understand this. Actually, their appreciation rivals that of their understanding—a fact born out by the enthusiasm with which voters delivered a truly landslide defeat to Democrats in 2010.
This enthusiasm has not abated. Not in the least. And this brings us to our third note.
Everyone who voted for McCain in 2008 can be counted on to vote for Romney this year. Obama, on the other hand, will not garner as much support as he received four years ago. There are far too many disenchanted Obama voters—small business owners and entrepreneurs, some independents, some self-avowed conservatives, and even some Democrats.
Romney is not McCain. President Obama is not the idealistic Senator Obama with whom the American public was presented. The country is now weary of the Democrats.
We should recall these facts the next time we are presented with polls showing this to be a tight race.
Image(Mitt Romney) Credit: CC BY-SA 3.0 (Flikr)/Gage Skidmore