Polls, Focus Groups & the Decline of Political Courage

The culture of campaign consultants is vile, but not only because of the conflicts-of-interest and the greed and the narrow focus on winning over discrete groups of the electorate with particular, tailored messages that do little to enlighten on the real problems facing the electorate. The problem is in the DNA. When we raise our children, we try to equip them with the values, the perspectives, and the wisdom to choose right from wrong. We do not tell them to take a poll, nor to convoke a focus group to determine the best course of action. Yes, they should examine the evidence and, in the world of politics, public opinion is an important piece of evidence. But, public opinion can be shaped as well as followed. Today, politicians do not first look into their stored experience or acquired knowledge when confronted with a political issue. They take a poll. They look to what is popular, not what is right. Some politicians, especially in Congress, can easily match the two because re-districting has become such a fine art that most members of Congress have no fear that their constituents will differ hugely from them on any given issue. Presidents have no such luxury. It is unclear to me why anyone still believes that focus groups work. Most new products are tested by focus groups, but most new products also fail 90% of the time. People behave differently in a group, and very differently when they know they are being watched. The artificiality of the entire process breeds cynicism. Polling and focus groups also suffer from the problem of self-selection. Yesterday, we talked about "baseline" polls, in which the pollster conducts a 20-25 minute long series of questions that purportedly yield a detailed analysis of the voters’ wishes in a given district. But, how many of you would sacrifice a full 25 minutes of an otherwise busy weeknight to talk to a stranger about your political views? Or sign up for a focus group, which takes even more time? Some people sign up to be in focus groups merely to get the check. A 2005 article in Business Week detailed the problems. The real problem with polling and focus groups is the habit of mind it creates in our politicians. If Franklin Roosevelt had been president during the current financial crisis, he would have been able to explain it to the American people in a series of fireside chats. He had that ability in part because he needed to think through issues for himself, consult with advisors, and articulate a position. He did not take a poll or convene focus group. Our politicians today can no longer explain themselves and their policies, except in the most wonkish of ways, because they no longer have to figure out what they themselves think of any given issue. The essence of practical democracy is the ability to convince a majority of one’s fellow citizens of the rightness of a given course of action. It is an ability that has been in sharp decline since the advent of the ad men. Michael Sean Winters
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