Commentary

Saunders: Would I lie to you? If you try to poll me I would

bsaunders@newsobserver.comJune 11, 2014 

What? Somebody listened to me?

The voters in Virginia’s 7th District who booted Eric Cantor from office this week probably won’t admit it, but many of them apparently used a strategy I’ve been recommending for years when it comes to politics and pollsters: LIE.

For years, I’ve been suggesting, as have many others, that people who are polled about for whom they plan to vote and why simply lie or, as it’s known in politics, prevaricate.

Anybody who knows me knows that I’m usually as honest as a church deacon, so why counsel fibbing?

Because the right to elect our government leaders is sacred and private, so why should we be compelled to share our thoughts with someone who’ll simply pass the information along to a politician who’ll then cynically tailor his or her message for maximum appeal?

Shoo-in shooed out

Polls of likely voters showed Cantor to be a shoo-in, leading by margins ranging from 9 percentage points to 34. He was, however, shooed out, which begs the question “How could the pollsters have been so wrong?” Did Virginia voters use ye olde B.S. strategy. (I named it after myself.)

Not likely, Steven Greene of N.C. State University’s School of Public & International Affairs said. Greene, associate professor of political science, said people do lie to pollsters, but not about for whom they plan to vote.

“Election polls typically do a really, really good job. Especially when you average them together,” he said. “I can be quite skeptical of public opinion polls on most things, as many Americans really have very little understanding of issues on education in North Carolina, or what the Affordable Care Act actually does, etc. But when it comes to simply saying who they are going to vote for, that’s pretty good information.

“Generally,” Greene said, people lie to pollsters “to make themselves seem better. We have a term for it – Social Desirability Bias. People will lie when you ask things like ‘How do you feel about black people?’ ‘Love ’em,’ or ‘How often do you go to church?’ ‘Every Sunday.’”

Hey, that’s what I would’ve said. To both questions.

Greene attributes the flawed polling in the race to something more benign than lying. “It’s hard to poll very low turnout races,” he said. “There are just so few actual voters compared to the number of respondents a poll needs to call.”

‘Keep him happy’

He also figured the pollster who missed by 5 miles “made too many assumptions that were favorable to Eric Cantor.”

Why would he do that? I asked.

“You have to wonder if the pollster ... wants to keep him happy” by delivering upbeat news.

Good point. Another good one is: “How do you poll people who are so angry that they’ll trade in the No. 2 congressman, in terms of influence, for the No. 435?

Years ago when I lived in Atlanta and native Georgian Jimmy Carter was trying to get re-elected president, a local TV station conducting one of those man-on-the-street, pre-election surveys stopped me to ask for whom I planned to vote.

Knowing what they expected to hear – and sensing that being contrarian might improve my chances of showing up on TV that night and being discovered and possibly becoming a contestant on “Dance Fever” – I said “Ronnie baby” and proceeded to explain why I thought Ronald Reagan would be good for the country.

In truth, I was unjustifiably terrified of the dude. I didn’t get my 45 seconds of airtime that night, because earlier that day a nearby bank was robbed by a pregnant woman, and the evening news found that a more compelling story than my segment. Yep, I got bumped by a baby bump.

With a few more “bad misses” such as occurred this week in Virginia, some pollsters may have to find more honorable ways to make money. Like robbing banks.

Saunders: 919-836-2811 or bsaunders@newsobserver.com

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