On Pols and PollsIf there's anything predictable in politics it's that when a politician's numbers go down he'll decry polls as worthless crap. He'll poo-poo them as not reflective of anything other than the pollster's obvious bias. He'll wax poetic on his ability to make decisions - sound ones, based on only the highest and mightiest of ideals - independent of what the polls indicate. One of the most oft-repeated phrases from the politicalese phrase book is, "I never pay attention to polls. They don't mean a thing."
Of course, no one believes that harmless fiction, but does it even have a grounding in truth? Should it?
Most people believe that politicians should make decisions independent of polls. To them, politicians swayed by polls are weak, craven pander bears more worried about their own reelection prospects than the prospects of the electorate. But are they right? Is this just the polled thinking like the politician - the polls disagree with my position, so therefore, they're wrong?
I'd posit that politicians who follow polls are pretty smart congressional cookies. Polls are a measurement of what the public is thinking, what they are likely to support - and more importantly - what they are likely to reject. Polls quantify ethereal emotions into trends that can help shape and inform policy. Politicians ignore this constant stream of free advice at their own - and the electorate's - peril. Polls are actually a pretty good way of continuing to refine a policy after it's already left the barn. It's certainly better than the finger in the wind method.
Nowhere is this more evident than in El Jefe's disdain for his poll numbers in Iraq. Over the course of the war, polls show - embarrassingly accurately - how little the public trusts Shrub's conduct of the war. Rather than listen to this advice, he merely insisted he was right, thereby snatching defeat from the jaws of victory. Had he paid a more attention to his tumbling numbers rather than artificially trying to inflate them, he and we would be much better off. When poll numbers look like a hole dug halfway to China, a smart man pays attention. He looks at those numbers and says to himself, "It's embarrassing, but I must admit that I may be wrong and I'm leading the flock to a place they really don't want to go. My embarrassment will likely treble if I don't do something PDQ, because I'm not really leading if nobody's following. Get me Peter Pace on the blower, will ya?"
I'll leave it to you to decide if Bubba's "stay the course" maxim indicates anything about his IQ. I think you're clear on my opinion.
But a reasonable person could argue that slavish attention to polls may not be the right course either. A good politician can't jump at every little click in the polls. This is called "chasing the numbers" in business parlance and it is almost never successful. It leads you on counterproductive inconsistencies that end up torpedoing the best of policies. A smart politician interprets the polls. For example, if the polls indicated support for an action that was clearly wrong or skirted the Constitution you'd be ill-advised to follow them. Contrary to popular belief, the public does get what they want sometimes and sometimes they really don't like it when they do.
In my mind, polls are just one more data point. "Numbers is numbers is numbers," as they say. Without some honest interpretation of what the numbers mean, framed in the context of what's best for the country, they can easily lead you astray. At the end of the day, what a politician does or doesn't do remains a subjective choice. A smart decider hedges the bet and makes better decisions with additional data. A not-so-smart one says, "I never pay attention to polls. They don't mean a thing."
Polls are only as good as the politicians who interpret them. They are neither good or bad, they simply are there to listen to or ignore. If I were polled on the question of whether polls were good or bad, my answer would be:
"None of the above, but I sure do wish there were more politicians who could count."
Truth Told by Omnipotent Poobah, Thursday, December 21, 2006