How to confound the pollsters

During the Florida vote recount fiasco of 2000 I wrote a column about how exit pollsters and national TV networks screwed up the presidential election process by misinterpreting their own polls and prematurely declaring former Vice President Al Gore as the winner of that hotly disputed election.

"Instead of taking responsibility for their rush to judgment, the networks quickly blamed ... VNS, their own exit polling consortium," I wrote. Not long after the polls closed, the networks relied on VNS data to call Florida for Gore, the Democratic candidate. But shortly after 2 a.m. Fox News declared that former Texas Gov. George W. Bush, a Republican, had won Florida and the national election. A couple of hours later, however, Fox and other networks reversed course and put Florida back in the undecided column.

As we all know by now, the U.S. Supreme Court eventually overruled the Florida Supreme Court to deliver the election to Bush, and the rest is history. It wasn't our proudest moment.

And now, eight years later, the TV networks, the pollsters and the pundits are at it again as if 2000 never happened. As we prepared to attend yesterday's political party caucuses, pollsters were deluging us with numbers and phone calls. Hillary will win. No, Obama will win. Watch out for (John) Edwards. But wait a minute. Pollsters couldn't play these silly numbers games with us if we didn't cooperate with them. For my part, I enjoy giving them bad information, and urge you to do the same.

One of my most insistent critics said something I actually agreed with in the commentary section of the Appeal Web site. "Lie to the pollsters," he wrote, and I endorse his cynical advice. Not that I'd ever tell my 3-year-old twin grandsons to lie, but pollsters are evil and deserve to be lied to.

Therefore, whenever they call me at home, either hang up on them or tell white lies. "Who are you voting for?" they ask. "Well," I reply in my most thoughtful voice, "I'm torn between Democrats Mike Gravel and Dennis Kucinich and Republicans Duncan Hunter and Ron Paul. I just can't make up my mind." I have nothing against those four candidates, mind you, but they lag far behind in recent opinion polls. So, nice Guy that I am, I want to boost their spirits and give them some hope, no matter how hopeless their cause may be.


I was delighted when the pollsters blew it in New Hampshire earlier this month. They were flat-out wrong when Mrs. Clinton upset Obama on the Democratic side of the ledger and Arizona Sen. John McCain surprised former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney among Republican contenders. Pollsters, who expected Obama to beat Clinton by double digits, and self-important TV pundits tried to explain where they went wrong.

"Spring, the season of rebirth, came to New Hampshire," wrote Nancy Gibbs and David Von Drehle of Time magazine. "John McCain and Hillary Clinton, two veterans once left for dead, had sprung back to life ... Voters in both contests turned out in record numbers to throw off the polling models." As we examine the results of the Nevada caucuses this morning, I hope we also confounded the out-of-state pollsters. The last statewide poll I saw, done by a Maryland (!) research company, had Obama and McCain winning our caucuses by narrow margins.

I hope the Maryland "experts" are eating humble pie this morning. Nothing against Obama and/or McCain, but the more often the pollsters are wrong, the better it is for our democracy because in the end, the voters still rule. Or, as Time headlined, "It's the voters, stupid!" while telling candidates that "democracy is more than weighing wallets and poll-testing positions, no matter what your consultants might tell you." Amen!

Back in 2000, after national TV networks apologized for their egregious election night errors, I quoted veteran newsman Tom Rosenstiel of the Los Angeles Times on the cozy relationships between journalists and the politicians they cover. "Journalism is becoming a subsidiary to larger corporate interests such as ABC inside Disney or Time magazine inside AOL," he wrote. "The biggest threat of the information revolution is that we could lose journalism as an honest referee of the public square on behalf of citizens."

Rosenstiel urged journalists to put citizens first, "ahead of party affiliation, shareholder equity, advertiser preference or the boss's whim." That's exactly what I learned at the University of Washington Journalism School many years ago, and it's what I still believe today. I leave you with some unsolicited advice: Mislead the pollsters as you "enjoy" the seemingly endless presidential election campaign. You owe it to yourself.

• Guy W. Farmer, a semi-retired journalist and former U.S. diplomat, lives and votes in Carson City.


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