Opinion » Viewpoint

Polls: The Dark Side

The Memphis mayoral election is a perfect case in point.

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The next time a pollster calls you, just say no.

You have the right to remain silent. Anything you say to a pollster can and will be used against you and the democratic process.

Polling organizations have a right to call us. I confess I read the polls and find them interesting fodder for discussion. But I do not trust them, and my usual response when called by a stranger on behalf of a pollster is "none of your business" or something like that. The late Chicago columnist Mike Royko had an even better idea: Lie to them.

Several polls were taken by different organizations prior to last week's Memphis mayoral election, which was won by Willie Herenton with 42 percent of the vote.

One early poll showed Carol Chumney leading, with lots of "undecideds" and virtually no white support for the mayor. That poll, of course, was designed to convince Herenton to bow out and to get Shelby County mayor A C Wharton to enter the race. Fat chance.

Another poll showed Herman Morris gaining ground but still losing. His handlers were all over that, claiming their man had momentum, as if that is the most important thing in an election.

Yet another poll showed Herenton winning by a whisker. The excitement was almost unbearable! Don't touch that dial! Stay tuned!

The most outrageous poll, taken by Steve Ethridge and published by The Commercial Appeal just before the election, showed Morris running close with Chumney and within striking distance of Herenton. This played neatly into the CA's editorial endorsement of Morris and the Morris yard signs that said "only" Morris could win. As it turned out, Morris could "only" win if the only other candidate was Prince Mongo. Chumney squeaked past Morris by 22,000 votes. And Herenton shocked the world at 495 Union Avenue by getting twice as many votes as Morris.

The CA and Ethridge should be ashamed and disgraced but not because they, in effect, threw the election to Herenton by low-balling Chumney and unrealistically boosting Morris, as some have suggested. They should be ashamed because they used the CA's stature as the city's only daily newspaper to sell a highly dubious piece of partisan polling as big news, knowing full well it would be seized upon by the Morris camp.

Some anti-Herenton voters no doubt felt that they would be "wasting" their vote if they cast it for Morris or Chumney. Pollsters have a name for a poll with an intended outcome: "push" poll.

Some polls are more honest than others, but as far as I'm concerned, the benefit of the doubt goes against all of them. I know far too many people who've been involved in campaigns over the years, and winning may not be everything to them but it sure beats coming in second. What all the pollsters and their fans fail to grasp is that, in Memphis at least, voting and responding to a poll are not the same thing.

If a candidate runs a serious campaign and that candidate's previous accomplishments and present positions on the issues make him or her seem like a worthy public servant, then that candidate absolutely deserves your vote, and polls be damned.

Voters, fortunately, can be pretty discerning. John Willingham, who said he had 10,000 black supporters, got only 1,118 votes in all. You can bet the Shelby County Republican Party, which endorsed him and put out sample ballots supporting him, is doing some hard thinking, if it is actually possible for them to think.

The most accurate predictor, on the other hand, turned out to be Herenton, who said the race was between him and Chumney and he would win it. It was, and he did.

I know, columnists and reporters also call people on the phone and try to get them to open up about all kinds of things. Some of us write opinion columns, like this one. But that's different from a poll masquerading as news.

This opinion column is worth exactly what you paid for it. In that respect, it has one thing in common with a poll.

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