HARVARD SQUARE COMMENTARY

January 21, 2008
Harvard Square Observer

Polls, Poll, and More Polls

Ernest Cassara


If Hillary Clinton wins the New Hampshire primary, it is considered an upset!  An upset of what?  Since when have polls become so important in American life that we must be guided by them?

I enjoyed the grilling that John Zogby - he of the famous poll - got when he appeared on Jon Stewart’s Daily Show.  All he could do as Stewart questioned him about the mistakes that his polling organization made in predicting the outcome in New Hampshire was to laugh!

This brings to mind my experience years ago, when the Washington Post hired its first pollster.  If you are a pollster, you have to justify your salary by doing a poll, no matter how dumb the topic may be.  At the time, I was a professor of history at George Mason University in Fairfax, across the Potomac from the District of Columbia.  I telephoned the gentleman to question him about some stupid poll he had taken.  No matter how I phrased my complaint, his response was that I just didn't like the outcome of the poll.

The result of that experience was to make me very suspicious of pollsters and to ignore their predictions.  I may be mistaken, of course.  It may be that they are important, in the sense that the human tendency to want to be on the winning side may cause people to vote in a particular way.  If so they are dangerous.  Can’t banish them, unfortunately, but we could all do our part in pooh-poohing their supposed findings among our friends and acquaintances.


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