Bob Dole says he opposes Bill Clinton's economic plan in part because the calls to his office are running 4-to-1 against it. At Pat Robertson's urging, thousands of loyal 700 Club viewers phone their congressmen to oppose gays in the military. William Schneider appears almost hourly on CNN with new polling data.
As the political process becomes both more complicated and more pervasive, average citizens say they find politics confusing and their elected representatives out of touch. Policy makers have chosen to "listen" to their constituents in a troubling manner: to support whatever today's poll says. But by elevating polling data above principles, honest (but honestly confused) elected officials risk making uninformed decisions about complex problems. And their less-honest colleagues can select the poll responses they agree with to justify what they plan to do anyway.
Politicians have always made some of their decisions by hoisting a wet finger in the breeze. But nose counting is no substitute for serious analysis of complicated issues.
Consider health care. A mid-February survey by EDK Associates asked 800 adults what they think causes medical costs to rise. The top four answers: Doctors charge too much; insurance companies make too much money; doctors, fearing lawsuits, order too many tests; and drug companies make too much profit.
These opinions might be interesting. But as guides to policy, they're useless. Hillary Clinton shouldn't ask average citizens what they think; she needs to know what in fact causes health-care inflation.
For instance, the National Center for Policy Analysis notes that doctors' fees once made up 25 percent of health-care costs; now they're 20 percent and shrinking. Drugs account for little more than 8 percent of medical costs, malpractice cases perhaps 1 percent.
There's no indication, however, that the First Lady is considering any of this information. Her husband was elected, in part, because polls show 90 percent of Americans want major health-care reforms. Damn the details.
Indeed, Bill Clinton ignores poll responses that don't reinforce his agenda. At the end of February, a Gallup/USA Today/CNN poll asked 1,005 adults if they believed Clinton's economic plan was better than "current tax and economic policies." Sixty-eight percent agreed; 26 percent defended the status quo.
But the president hasn't found much use for the poll's next question: What should Congress do? Thirty-five percent said pass Clinton's plan as proposed; 46 percent said make "major modifications" first. Another 14 percent rejected it outright. Six out of 10 people who answered that poll gave Bill Clinton a clear message: We want change, but not the type you offer.
Last year, Ross Perot, Pat Buchanan, and Jerry Brown identified a growing alienation among voters. They drew much of their appeal from being accessible and from their desire to discuss issues—debt, taxes, and foreign policy, among others. Politicians need not believe getting in touch means hanging out at Gallup headquarters.
This article originally appeared in print under the headline "Polling Error".