The influence of surveys on political voting has long troubled me, and from what I’m seeing, it’s getting only worse.
On the candidates’ side of the equation, an escalating reliance on their privately acquired marketing research (and that’s what this really is, marketing, as in advertising) leads to tailoring their message to likely voters’ expectations. Prejudices, anyone? The campaign applies the responses to focus on establishing a positive brand and image quite apart from character and qualifications, even before sussing out the negative labels to stick to competitors in the race. This plays right into opportunistic office seekers and their key backers, and soon the public really has no way of trusting the campaign’s stated positions. How much is merely a mirage or out-and-out smoke and mirrors?
The media, meanwhile, have increasingly focused precious time and space on the horse race numbers rather than examining the policy implications and records of the rivals. The latest polls, not the campaigning itself, take over the coverage. It’s too much like sports without athletic skills in action.
And then, on the voters’ side of the equation, we have the question of whether the survey projections actually alter the very pulse they purport to be measuring. For one thing, supporting a loser takes courage. Give ideologues credit for sticking with candidates who reasonably have no chance of winning. But for many voters, the polls can play into self-doubt. What do other people see in the leading candidate that I don’t? Popularity, in other words, builds on itself.
Of course, there’s always the danger of overconfidence. Why bother to vote if so-and-so’s going to win anyway? Even if its your favorite. Me, I usually lean toward the upset, if possible.
Meanwhile, the ongoing presidential primary drive has the pollsters’ influence running rampant.
As we saw in Iowa, Republicans hoping to stop Donald Trump looked for a candidate running closest behind him and then did all they could to add some momentum to the chase. Is Ted Cruz the guy they really want? Well, what he did have was some numbers.
Among the Democrats, the projected percentages have many Bernie Sanders’ fans deliberating whether to vote their heart now, despite the possibility of wounding Hillary Clinton’s chances in November – or of casting their primary vote for her as the party’s best chance of retaining the White House come autumn.
Being practical in the polling booth does start to wear thin. It’s enough to wonder how you’d really vote if you didn’t have those surveys in your face.