Letter to the Editor: Polls and democracy

By on October 31, 2002

At a university like Quinnipiac, home of a nationally famous polling institute, and in the swing of election season, it is only natural to consider the relationship between polls and democracy.
Take, for example, the current situation in my home state of New Jersey, where six candidates are running for a U.S. Senate seat: ethically-challenged incumbent Democrat Robert Torricelli, wealthy Republican challenger Doug Forrester, Green Party candidate Ted Glick, a Libertarian, a Socialist, and a Conservative candidate.
They are all trying to get their message out, and they are all trying to get into the debates. But the debates have guidelines that exclude candidates unless they can show they have a certain amount of support in the polls, and the media give little coverage to candidates who the polls don’t include. So, third party candidates get stuck in a Catch-22 because the polls won’t even mention that they exist unless they get good coverage in the media.
Take the latest Quinnipiac poll. It asks questions that specifically name Torricelli and Forrester, but fails to mention any other candidate, or offer any other option than those two main party candidates in the question.
This can be quite ironic, particular when a third party candidate, Ted Glick, gets polled about the race he is in and, even after explaining to the pollster that he was himself a candidate for U.S. Senate and would be voting for himself, was still asked whether he preferred Torricelli or Forrester. Nevertheless a number of people do volunteer a third alternative. Others choose “undecided” in disgust.
One issue is the integrity of the poll. The results of poll that excludes a number of candidates can only legitimately be interpreted as the level of support enjoyed by each of those two candidates in the absence of the other candidates. But invariably, Quinnipiac polling institute interprets their results as the overall level of support enjoyed by the candidates, and somehow the media never seem to notice the fiction.
If there are few supporters of other candidates, this assumption may be sustained, but when the number of supporters of third party and independent candidates is not trivial, the false assumption leads to obviously biased results. That is probably true now in New Jersey where private polls suggest that
Ted Glick enjoys nearly double-digit support – and is getting more and more media attention – but the Quinnipiac poll suggests that all the third party candidates together have less than half that.
Another issue is reputation. Quinnipiac has a great reputation, but it may be hollow. Last year they failed to ask questions about independent
NJ gubernatorial candidate Bill Schluter, a long time New Jersey legislator who got lots of very good press in his campaign bid. When I contacted Quinnipiac polls to inquire about why they failed to include Schluter I was told “Who is Schluter?” I would think the first concern a political pollster would need to address is knowing who the candidates are in the campaigns they poll about, but perhaps not.
A bigger issue is the effect on democracy. Democracy is built on the fundamental idea of the people choosing their leaders from among a selection of candidates. But the policy of polling institutes effectively suppresses voter’s exposure to the choices available to them.
Again consider New Jersey, where the two corporate party candidates both support the U.S. attacking Iraq, which Ted Glick opposes.
Or health care, where he is the only candidate supporting universal health coverage. If polls such as Quinnipiac continue to exclude Ted from their question wording they are in effect partisan activists against all issues and choices that are not championed by one of the two big parties, and they are also literally causing debate to be suppressed.
A democracy is founded on the freedom of speech and freedom of press precisely because to be wise rulers the people must be informed. Polls that stand as obstacles to keeping the public informed, as does the polling institute at Quinnipiac, are enemies of democracy. Quinnipiac needs to open their polls and open debate.
Blyden Plotts
Audubon, N.J.


About defaultuser