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MAN BITES TOWN

A POLL APART : It's Got the Public's Number, Give or Take a Few Percentage Points

December 22, 1991|Harry Shearer

It pains me to admit it, but this column has not been in the forefront of journalistic innovation. While comic strips have featured dubious files about vice presidential drug use and local TV news has pioneered ever-less-subtle ways of plugging tomorrow night's movie, this space has just chugged along.

No longer. Today this column launches the newest and, if I may make so bold, the most well-thought-out public-opinion poll in the business.

No need, is there, to explain why the American public needs yet another service to tell it what it thinks. Every network and major newspaper runs a poll. Virtually everyone who has ever surveyed opinion for a political campaign has gone on to hang out a polling shingle. There is an unquenchable thirst for the kind of information, whatever it is, that a poll can provide.

George Bush would still be denying that our economy is less than robust, except for the polls that told him we think the economy is deep in the crapper. How did we know what was going on, when the President had access to all the raw economic data amassed by the White House Office of Data Amassment? Either we all knew somebody who had just lost his job, or we all read the latest polls.

So, I figure, polls are like money. There are never enough, and it's always possible to manufacture more. The first question I faced in organizing this project was to name the poll. The father of modern polling certainly benefited from a catchy and euphonious last name that he could hang on his numbers. The Gallup Poll was easy to remember, fun to say. If George's last name had been, let's say, Gerberding, the whole industry might have been stillborn, and modern campaigning and marketing would have been left with only psychics and shrinks to turn to.

The obvious notion, the Shearer Poll, just didn't ring right, and it carried a suggestion of lame wordplay; might as well have called it the Barber Poll, and gotten the cheap laugh. But no. The tricky names wouldn't stop coming: to plumb questions of local importance, the Metro Poll; to see how the public feels about nuclear matters, the Fission Poll.

Finally, I realized that the name would have to grow naturally out of the particular service this poll would provide. It's a working title until the copyright lawyers do their magic: the No Excuses Poll.

The marketing niche this service would fill was wickedly exposed by the recent Louisiana election. Whatever your opinion of Nazis with nose jobs, you have to agree that the performance of the polls in that race was a true scandal. First, in the primary, they vastly underestimated David Duke's support. They rationalized their failure by blaming the Duke voters for lying to the pollsters. Then, determined not to repeat that mistake, the polls went through statistical acrobatics to "adjust" for the lying-Duke-voter factor in the runoff election. They ended up wildly overstating Duke's vote, and the opinion mavens explained that voters had failed to lie as predicted.

Obviously, we have reached the point in this country where polls are no longer valued primarily for the degree to which they approach accuracy. They're just an established part of the landscape of mental garbage, Mt. Rushmores of useless information. We accept their blatant errors more cheerily than we tolerate TV weathermen failing to predict rain. More to the point, the weather guys have to act goofily apologetic when they err; they're not allowed to blame the clouds for lying.

So, yes, the No Excuses Poll will present numbers representing public opinion, gleaned by some method that defies common sense. And, yes, those numbers will be accompanied by the usual margin-of-error disclaimer, although this poll will pride itself on having the largest margin of error in the business.

But the real meat of each poll report will be the torrent of clever, cogent, persuasive explanations of why our figures are wrong. The voters lied, the voters are ashamed, the voters are too dumb, the voters are too smart, they never reveal their true intent during a cold snap, they underwent a sudden change of heart after our last sweep, these figures just represent a snapshot in time--you get the idea. Our people are at work right now, coming up with the first set of explanations. Naturally, even more elaborate rationales will be available exclusively to subscribers to the poll's expensive newsletter.

Watch for results soon in this space. Remember, bad numbers you can get anywhere. For the reasons why, you need No Excuses.

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