How not to answer a telephone poll
Politics is webbed into my DNA. Been that way since I was a pup (don’t ask how long ago that was).
I think about politics, talk about politics, write about politics, lose old friends over politics. But until the other day, I had never taken part in a political poll.
I’ll never take part in another.
When I answered the phone, a female voice, obviously young, obviously reading from a prepared script, said I had been chosen by Company XYZ to express my political views. Wise old owl that I fancy myself to be, I should have hung up.
But I decided to ride with it. Chance to put my thumb on the scale, right, old boy? What could go wrong?
Everything could go wrong. Everything did.
All the questions were either too general or too imprecise. The entire process tried to shoehorn me into either the land of blue or the land of red. Life — and politics — cannot be a simple matter of yesses or nos.
I did hang in until the bitter end. But if my answers help to elect or defeat a particular candidate, I’ll be very surprised.
File the entire exercise under: “I wish I had been playing tiddledywinks instead.”
The pollster and I got off on the wrong foot as soon as she asked her first question. It was: “Which issue do you think is the most important in the 2024 election cycle?”
“I get only one?” I asked. “I could list 15.”
“Sir,” she said, with forced courtesy, “I can only accept one answer.” So, I voted for climate change. I was already gritting my ornery old-guy teeth.
More gritting over the second question: “How do you feel about political polarization in American today?”
“I hate it,” I said. “But that doesn’t do justice to your question.”
I launched into a spiel about how the two major parties aren’t really trying to govern or solve problems. I remember when the opposite was true, I told my caller. But today, candidates are just trying to raise money so they can get elected or re-elected.
Here came more forced courtesy: “Sir,” she said, “I’ll put you down for hating it.” Of course, that didn’t reflect my answer fully. But neither she, nor whoever was paying her, cared about that.
Question Three: Do I feel that the Republican Party really cares about people like me?
“I have no idea,” I said, “because the issue isn’t my feelings. It’s results. I’m all about political parties achieving results.”
“So, you don’t think the Republican Party cares about you?”
“I didn’t say that. You’re leading the witness. My full answer would keep you on the phone with me for ten additional minutes.”
The pollster paused briefly, as if she were trying to decide how to log my reply. I have no idea what she came up with. By this point, I was almost past caring.
Then Question Four: “Have you ever given money to a political candidate or a political party?”
I refused to answer. If I had said yes, I’d be badgered from now until kingdom come for a buck or two (I am anyway). If I said no, well, who knows? I might have to go back three spaces and lose my turn.
Question Five: “Do Democrats handle the economy better than Republicans?”
My inner senior-citizen wise-guy was rounding into top form by now. “My answer is none of the above,” I said.
“Sir,” said my pollster, “I need an answer of one or the other.”
I told her that I couldn’t give her just one. The economy was so complicated, and the forces that determine it are so far beyond political control, that I…
“Thank you, sir,” she said, a bit abruptly. Then a final question:
“Which party do you trust more to keep you and your family safe?”
“Again, I can’t give you a simple answer,” I said. “Keeping me and my family safe is about world politics, not just domestic politics. You are boiling down complicated questions to the point where there’s no more water left in the pot.”
She thanked me for my time. I could tell she didn’t mean it. I was starting to ask her a few questions of my own — Which party commissioned this survey? How did you choose me to interview? — when I heard a click. The poll was over.
Polls get far too much attention in today’s politics. Time and again, they have proven to be less than crystal-ball accurate about who will win on Election Day.
But the real issue is why poll questions are so often posed as either-or, and love-it-or-hate it. Never before have political issues been so complicated. We’ll never solve them if pollsters keep shoving us into blue or red cubbyholes.
Bob Levey is a national award-winning columnist.