NEW YORK — Damn, damn, damn the polls.
My irritation has nothing to do with the way they botched this election; or how they botched the last two British elections or the Brexit vote.
It is not a matter, to my mind, of whether the polls get it wrong. It is a matter simply that they are taken at all. I have been railing against them for years.
I have found pollsters on the whole — I have interviewed quite a few — to be decent, honest people who believe they are taking the voters’ temperature scientifically; that their work is helpful, contributing to the national or regional understanding.
But polls are far from the benign things they purport to be. They are a setup shot that becomes the movie; a snapshot that changes the course of events, a contrived intrusion into the public discourse that then monopolizes it.
Polls sideline good people, bring into favor the known over the unknown, and promote a kind of national continuation. They begin to write the narrative, not to reveal it. They terrify timid leaders and office aspirants.
These same arguments can be made against a lot of market research. Ask people what they like, and they will tell you they like what they know.
Imagine if Harold Ross, the genius who created The New Yorker, had polled the public about the magazine he was about to start in 1925, and had asked, “Do you want a magazine in which the articles are long, the bylines are at the end of the articles, the headlines are in squiggly type, and there is no table of contents?”
Do you think there would be The New Yorker (it still has long articles, but the bylines are at the beginning, and it has a table of contents) today?
The most blame in the plague of polls that now distorts our elections belongs with the news media.
They commission polls relentlessly and then publicize the results, as though they have been allowed to see the face of God. This synthetic news.
Polls are not the revealed truth. They are an imperfect peek into the national thought portfolio. But once they become part of that portfolio, they corrupt the momentum of events.
Worse, polls sway the politicians. They turn the Pied Piper into one of the rats, getting in line with the rest.
In his Sept. 30, 1941, review of the war to the House of Commons, Prime Minister Winston Churchill chose to address the subject opinion and leadership.
He said: “Nothing is more dangerous in wartime than to live in the temperamental atmosphere of a Gallup Poll, always feeling one’s pulse and taking one’s temperature. I see that a speaker at the weekend said that this was a time when leaders should keep their ears to the ground. All I can say is that the British nation will find it very hard to look up to leaders who are detected in that somewhat ungainly posture.”
The damage is that polls have proliferated in recent years, and they perform various functions for various people. Universities and colleges have found, as in the case of the Quinnipiac University Poll, that polls are a branding asset.
The Quinnipiac poll is run by a small college in the rolling hills of Connecticut with great professionalism and objectivity, which has given it considerable standing in the world of polling. It also has enhanced the standing of the college which runs it.
My quarrel with the polls will be partly assuaged if they continue to get it wrong.
That way they will take their place in the background clutter, not the breathtaking political snapshots that undermine elections.