Lighten up on summer surveys

The Pollsters Protection Union, Local 666, may soon be censuring my good pal Mike Murphy for quipping on Sunday’s “Meet the Press” that polls conducted before the convention are meaningless. In his defense, he didn’t say we should stop polling. Rather, he argued that pundits should just pay less attention to the polls until the Republican and Democratic tickets are set. But even if we continue polling this summer, there are a few questions that might be left off the questionnaires. With a few changes in our polls, maybe we’d be back on Murphy’s radar.

For starters, let’s drop that “right direction or wrong track” business. When the economic news is more balanced, this question is an important diagnostic. But when the split goes 80-20 toward “wrong track,” what’s the point of the question? It doesn’t discriminate very much of anything that is useful. Once upon a time, this question seemed most sensitive to economics. But now I am discerning that it has a growing political meaning. The hardy (or is it foolhardy?) souls who see things headed in the right direction are disproportionately Democrats and minorities, not Phil Gramm Republicans.

I also used to defend this question as a good warm-up item. It gets the poll respondent thinking, I thought. Gets the cobwebs out. But now I wonder whether it’s just a downer that stimulates a plethora of negativity in response to all the questions that follow. Maybe it’s responsible for the psychological recession. Strike it.

Then there’s the “most important issue or problem” question. Strike that, too. Or perhaps reword it to say, “Other than ridiculously high gas prices at the pump, what is the most important issue or problem facing your family today?”

For the past decade, we have suffered through a flat issue agenda. There was no single “most important issue or problem” in the mind of the American public. There were always three to five issues that split up the electorate, leaving us like a wind vane, unsure of the direction we should point. But no more. The electorate is locked onto one issue. The only issue priority questions we should be asking are about solutions to the energy crisis. “Should we drill here or there?” “Nuclear or not?” “Windmill tax credits or not?” This is where we should be.

Some other staple questions of summer polls before presidential contests seem less predictive this time around in terms of voting and elections. The moral questions — pro-life or pro-choice, attend church or stay home — don’t seem as essential in the current electoral context. The litmus questions — pro-gun or -gun control — aren’t seemingly as controlling of voter sentiment. They may get thrown overboard as we slim down this summer’s polls.

Pollsters should also eschew any questions containing the word “Bush.” It’s a waste of time and money to keep asking about presidential approval and George Bush favorability. Voters have already given the thumbs-down sign in the arena of public opinion. Why do some polls keep asking those questions? It’s unsportsmanlike piling-on, like some Division 1 football team running up the score in the fourth quarter against some lesser competitor, just to pad some stats.

It’s over, my friends. Only strong Republican stalwarts back this fine president, so if you have a party ID question on your poll, that should suffice. No approval questions needed or wanted until next year.

An Indiana politician once quipped that “No American pays attention to politics until the World Series is over.” That may be a little late in the going to start our polling. But this summer there is a lull in the action that merits some rethinking of how we do our business. As Murphy suggests, until there are VP candidates, lighten up.

Hill is director of Hill Research Consultants, a Texas-based firm that has polled for GOP candidates and causes since 1988.