By Bill Press
Tribune Media Services
My New Year’s resolution is simple: Let’s get rid of all public opinion polls.
Seriously! We’ve become a nation fixated on polls. On any topic. As if they mean anything. But they don’t. They mean nothing. Nada. Zip. Yet every news outlet today uses them as a substitute for serious journalism. The easiest and most inane way to fill space on any program is to debate the “meaning” of the latest poll.
Last week, for example, I appeared as a member of a panel on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe.” As I arrived on the set, President Obama was stepping up to the podium at the United Nations Climate Talks in Copenhagen, urging representatives of 193 nations to agree on a plan to combat global warming. “It is better for us to act than to talk,” he told delegates, “it’s better to choose action over inaction, the future over the past.”
It was a powerful moment. After years of stalling, the United States was finally accepting responsibility as the planet’s number one emitter of greenhouse gases. After eight years of neglect by the Bush administration, America was taking the lead in forging a global strategy on climate change. The Secretary of Energy, the Secretary of State, the Speaker of the House, Sen. John Kerry, and the President himself were present to seal the deal.
A historic moment, indeed. But the first question posed to our panel, immediately following the president’s speech, was about poll results appearing in The Washington Post that morning. According to the survey, only 45 percent of Americans approve of the president’s handling of global warming, down from 61 percent in April. Only 29 percent trust scientists on the issue, while 40 percent distrust them.
Who cares? The only conclusion to draw from that survey is that Americans are even more ignorant on the issue of global warming than we feared. No matter if 95 percent of Americans disapprove, Obama should still take the lead in steps to reduce global warming. It would be irresponsible, and suicidal for the planet not to. And if Americans don’t trust scientists on a question of science, whom do they trust? The poll doesn’t tell us. Politicians? Their preacher? The plumber?
You can find a poll on anything these days. You can also find a poll that will say anything. Only 35 percent of Americans support health care reform legislation, according to a survey conducted for Fox News. No, no, no. Make that 58 percent who support reform, says the Progressive Change Committee’s survey, as long as the bill contains a public plan option or expansion of Medicare.
And, isn’t it nice? We don’t even have to wait anymore for elections to roll around. The polls start years ahead of time. According to Public Policy Polling, Obama will crush Sarah Palin in 2012, 55 to 35. Were Ron Paul to head the ticket, predicts the Atlas Forum, the Ron Paul/Mike Huckabee ticket would lose to Obama, 58 to 33. While Freedom’s Lighthouse has actually declared Mitt Romney the GOP nominee in 2012, winning with 35 percent over 26 percent for Huckabee and 20 percent for Palin — in a poll taken in October 2008, a month before voters had even gone to the polls to choose between John McCain and Barack Obama!
Enough already. Any intelligent person must know that polls prove nothing except that if you spread lies loud and long enough, a lot of people will believe you. The overwhelming majority of Americans want our broken-down, exorbitantly expensive health care system fixed. Low poll numbers only show that they’re still suckers for the lies about “death panels” or “socialized medicine” spread by right-wing talk radio and Fox News.
Polls are also notoriously unreliable. They can and do change overnight. So they should never be used to determine government action. So what if only 35 percent, according to Fox, support health care reform? It’s still the right thing to do. In our representative form of government, we elect leaders to make decisions on what they believe, based on the facts, is best for the country — not on what the herd demands on any given day. Otherwise, we might as well send Congress home, just take a daily poll, and change the law accordingly.
Imagine. If FDR followed the polls, we would never have entered World War II. If LBJ took a poll, there would be no Medicare.
© 2009 Tribune Media Services, Inc.