How Polls Poison the Well of Citizenship
George Washington, in his farewell address, pleads with Americans to pay heed to the indispensability of what he calls "enlightened public opinion" to the survival of a free republic. The enlightenment in question is explicitly moral in nature. Specifically, Washington expresses the necessity of fostering the moral character appropriate to free citizens, which, he says, is the "necessary spring of popular government." The key to this character, as I have explained elsewhere, is enlightened individualism, the distinctively American morality grounded in a sense of self-reliance, personal responsibility, and pride in the ownership of one's own life and, by extension, one's own government. In effect, "enlightened public opinion" is the collective expression of the virtue of responsible citizenship. Today, that wellspring of popular government has been poisoned by a bilious antithesis of enlightened public opinion: the public opinion poll.
According to a December 21 Rasmussen poll, Mitt Romney is leading in Iowa with 25% support, followed by Ron Paul at 20%, Newt Gingrich at 17%, and the two Ricks, Perry and Santorum, tied at 10%. The faded fine print at the bottom of the Rasmussen web page informs us that this result has a margin of error of "+/- 4%," which means that, according Rasmussen's own calculus, the result, were this poll conducted again immediately, could be Paul at 24%, Gingrich and Romney at 21%, Santorum at 14%, and Perry at 6%. Or it could be Romney at 29%, Paul at 16%, Santorum and Perry at 14%, followed by Gingrich at 13%. Furthermore, the written analysis of the numbers, which of course gets far less attention than the numbers themselves, informs us that only 46% of respondents described themselves as committed at this time. In other words, under half of those Iowans polled claimed to have decided firmly upon a preferred candidate. And, to top it all off, the sample size dictates that Rasmussen can stand behind these results with only "a 95% level of confidence."
To summarize this poll result: Romney could be in the lead, or as low as third; likewise for Paul. Gingrich could be tied for the lead or languishing in fifth place. Both Santorum and Perry could be third -- or last. In addition, half the voters claim to have made no real commitment at this time, which means that, assuming that the poll's calculations are 100% accurate, if the Iowa caucuses were held today, Jon Huntsman theoretically could win in a landslide. (And this leaves aside the wildcard that the statistics render a 5% lack of "confidence" in these numbers, which means that the whole poll could be completely out of whack.)
Perhaps, then, a suitable headline for this poll would be "Iowa still anybody's to win." Don't go looking for that one. On the evening of December 21, the Drudge Report's above-the-logo headline was "Iowa: Romney 25% Paul 20% Gingrich 17%."
Two questions: why are polls headline news, when the "reputable" ones must be so carefully qualified as to admit of endless interpretations? And more importantly, what is the effect of all this poll-reporting on the nature of a republic maintained by popular vote?
The first thing that must be said about any and all pre-election polls is that they have absolutely no predictive value. They are statistical analyses of people's expressed views at the moment they were contacted by the pollster. As approximate and variable as the results are, those results are also merely a quantification of the past, and tell us nothing whatsoever about the future. Pollsters take repeated polls throughout the course of a campaign precisely because a poll actually forecasts nothing, so pollsters must continually renew their results in order to appear to have their fingers on the pulse of things. For example, did the October polls predict Gingrich's meteoric rise to the top of the November polls? Did the November polls help to prepare you for Gingrich's recent slide?
Given the reality of these polls -- that they merely measure, with a loose notion of measurement, past answers to more or less leading questions -- why does anyone care very much about them?
The simple answer is that polls are reported as Page-One headlines. Everyone knows that horoscopes have no real predictive value, but we have fun reading them anyway. That's why most newspapers have an astrology column -- and why it appears on page C20. But what if we lived in a culture that had begun to take astrology seriously? Horoscopes would be no less hooey than they are now, but they would have a real effect on the world that they do not presently have.
Imagine that the New York Times carried the following above-the-fold banner headline: "Aries Will Find Romance Today." Wouldn't many Aries folks go out today explicitly looking for opportunities to meet people, and prepared to interpret those meetings as potential fulfillments of their destiny? Wouldn't other people, believing that their zodiac signs are a good match for Aries, seek to place themselves in the path of an Aries today, in the hope that they might become the fulfillment of that horoscope? In other words, wouldn't the pseudo-prediction produce real effects that would seem to verify the prediction?
Treating polls as serious election news is no more reasonable than my hypothetical horoscope headline. Polls are, at best, advertising gimmicks for news outlets -- playful pseudo-scientific predictions designed to sell newspapers, as the earliest American election polls explicitly were. By reporting them as genuine news -- by allowing one organization's advertising gimmick to play as another outlet's headline -- the media seek to produce a field-narrowing effect by fostering voters' fears of worst-case scenarios. Think of the tone of the arguments dominating the chatter at the moment, from Coulter, Hannity, some voices at National Review, and so on through the ranks of conservative commentary: "Gingrich is too volatile, so we must rally behind Romney." "Romney is too moderate, so we must rally behind Gingrich." "Paul's foreign policy is too scary, so we must rally behind Romney/Gingrich." Polls and poll-reporting are designed to influence voters' behavior by engendering this conclusion: "My favorite candidate is too far behind now, so I'd better choose the best of the frontrunners."
The monstrous issue of this fear-mongering is "strategic voting." So entrenched has this moral weakness become in modern electoral politics that we now casually regard "strategic voting" as a sensible alternative to "voting your conscience." Indeed, voting your conscience is now commonly dismissed as the domain of grandmothers who vote for the Family Party because they promise to outlaw abortion on day one, with strategic voting acknowledged as the reasonable man's way of playing a small role in the final stage of a process that has largely unfolded without him. Polling is the means whereby this anti-republican lie has been infused into the American soul.
"Voting your conscience" is the very meaning of voting: standing up and being counted according to your own principles. It is the practical mechanism whereby Washington's "enlightened public opinion" protects and sustains the republic. That is to say, it is virtue made manifest in the democratic process. It is the definitive act of moral citizenship.
The stakes in the 2012 election -- the survival of America as a constitutional republic, and, by extension, the continuance of freedom as the winning argument in the immediate future of civilization -- are too high to allow the process to be rigged in the usual way. Heed the first president's warning: vote fearlessly from the character of an enlightened citizen -- vote your virtue.
After all, as the polls show, Iowa is still anybody's to win.