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Internal Polling, Indeed

March 23, 2004

Southern California Edison Co. recently suspended about a dozen utility employees for stacking a performance poll of customers so the employees came out with a very positive evaluation. Now, expect a poll of about a dozen recently suspended utility employees to find unanimous disagreement with the suspensions and unanimous agreement with the positive poll results.

This shouldn't be shocking. For centuries -- ever since Queen Isabella's poll numbers soared after dispatching that Columbus pest to the New World -- the prominence of polls has grown. Could the Civil War have been averted if a stacked Lincoln poll showed zero secession support?

According to one unscientific poll, polls are everywhere today; a few are self-serving, with questionable methodology, but all get eagerly consumed as an accurate snapshot of a moment in time. Recent primary polls were so ubiquitous they became the news for weeks, with actual voting a mere ratification. We may hear a little something about presidential race polls every hour until Nov. 2.

Polls address widespread curiosity about public opinion en route to a final decision. Election polls also create perfect public distractions for candidates to avoid addressing messy real issues. Private polls are also useful. Say you want a Colorado vacation. Your spouse favors Mexico. Simply announce that a recent poll shows the spouse's stand got fewer votes than Dennis Kucinich. Having polled yourself, the margin of error is plus or minus 0%. Who knows enough to argue?

The Edison workers allegedly substituted their own or friendly phone numbers on customer survey forms. Not surprisingly, when pollsters called, the people answering professed extreme satisfaction with that worker and company. This led to $28 million in special state service awards.

Forget fraud for a minute. And $28 million in state tips. This approach has possibilities. Say you're an invisible mayor or unpopular governor. Simply substitute your phone number with pollsters. The manufactured results reveal high popularity. This discourages challengers. You'd spend countless phone hours answering the same pollster's questions, but a supportive poll creates a whole new news reality. If 88% said a governor was great, who'd try a recall?

It might also be a whole new marketing approach in Hollywood. Say you headed up the movie studio releasing "Gigli." Dismal box office receipts could have been irrelevant if a poll of you 1,100 times created new news of unanimous delight. Then again, even fantasy polls have their limits.

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