Drew Westen, current “it guy” of political attitude research, has a provocative HuffPo post about the limits — and untapped potential — of opinion polls. After conceding that current polling techniques can produce useful results, Westen argues:
But polls and focus groups can mislead as often as they inform. They can misinform the public if voters are unaware of the extent to which what you get out of them depends on what you put into them. If you ask people if they are “pro-life” or “pro-choice,” you miss all the nuances that lead two-thirds of voters to believe that we should find some “middle ground” on abortion — if you happen to ask that question. They also mislead voters in an election when the media repeatedly report national numbers, because we don’t elect our presidents in direct elections. If they can’t afford to sample enough voters in a state-by-state or region-by-region basis that can approximate likely Electoral College results, the media shouldn’t report anything, even on a slow news day, because doing so creates false impressions of how candidates would fare in the election (not in a fictitious national referendum) that create bandwagon effects and bias voters’ judgments about electability in early primary states.
It’s not just the missed nuances, Westen believes; it’s also the overreaching:
Polls and focus groups can also mislead — and cost elections — when campaigns don’t understand their limits. They led Al Gore’s campaign in 2000 to avoid talking about the earth we leave our children (notice that I didn’t say “the environment”), even though that was his most enduring passion, because his consultants couldn’t find their way from “the environment” (a term that is, in fact, emotionally and electorally deadening) to the voter. They used the polls, like Democratic pollster-strategists have used them in so many elections, to tell the candidate what issues to talk about, instead of using them the way Luntz used voters’ responses, namely to help candidates refine the words and imagery to talk about what really matters to them. Gore showed how easily he could have turned his passion about the earth into similar feelings among the electorate in “An Inconvenient Truth,” with images of glaciers falling and emotionally powerful words that conveyed — and activated in the rest of us — his passion, as he movingly told his listeners, with an intonation in his voice that transmitted just how important the issue really is, “This is our only home.”
Westen goes on to argue that the “the gut level emotional responses” in voting decisions “are generated outside our awareness.” He discusses how experiments using subliminal flash images of candidates change responses to poll questions and concludes that using such polling techniques would have helped Gore to understand the benefits of making more use of Bill Clinton in the 2000 campaign.
Westen opposes using subliminal images in political campaign ads as manipulative and unethical. But he makes a strong case that applying such technologies in opinion polls can help candidates unveil voters’ deepest feelings about issues and candidates. Pollsters and poll-watchers alike will find his article of considerable interest.