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Monday, February 11, 2008

Show exit polls the door

Incessant analysis adds little value

By Dennis Byrne
Chicago Tribune

Now that exit polls have confirmed that white men can bring themselves to vote for a black presidential candidate, can we dump the pollsters?

It was thanks to pollsters interviewing those who had cast votes that reporters-turned-sociologists could proclaim the startling fact that a significant percentage of white males could shrug off their supposedly deep-seated racism and vote for a black man, Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.). As if we needed a poll to tell us that.

CNN's "best political team" of commentators on Super Tuesday night told us. One team member, former presidential adviser David Gergen, was amazed that Obama could get 45 percent of the white male vote in a Southern state. It was, he said, historic. Host Lou Dobbs, reading my mind, cautioned against stereotyping white men, but Gergen, reminding everyone that he was from the South and, therefore, I suppose, an authority on white male racism, said it couldn't have happened as recently as two years ago.

Of course, Obama, an extraordinary candidate whatever his race, wasn't running two years ago. But, thanks to exit polls, we can keep the fight going over just how racist we all are.

Exit polls are poisonous. At least how they are used. Which is obsessively. They provide ammunition for those who ponder whether Hispanics are racist because they voted for Sen. Hillary Clinton (D-N.Y.) instead of for a fellow "minority." Or conversely, whether black voters are racist because they voted for Obama in near "unanimous" numbers.

They inform us which candidate has the support of "upper-income" voters, so we can fuel class warfare by voting for his opponent. They give us such "insights" as this from Jonathan Tilove in a Newhouse dispatch: For the first time "Caucasian men" will have to get used to the idea that one of their own might not be president. But, he points out, exit polls tell us that because women and blacks are voting for their own, the decision of whether a black or a woman will be nominated is left in the hands of white men. Apparently, no matter how we try, we just can't get white men out of the equation.

Super Tuesday analysts treated exit polls as sacred texts, droning on and on and on about which candidate most appealed to (or was disliked by) a particular racial, ethnic, religious or gender voting bloc.

Maybe it was because they had nothing else to jabber about until they could proclaim a winner the instant the polls closed in each state. Maybe it was because explaining the far more complex mechanics of delegate selection was too difficult. Or maybe it was because they thought that exit poll results are terribly interesting and important.

Important? For some, more important than the elections themselves. Recall that in the 2004 presidential election, the conspiracy theorists concluded that Republicans somehow had stolen the election from Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) and handed it to President Bush because the election results did not conform to the exit polls. The polls had "predicted an overwhelming victory" for Kerry, and a stolen election, for some, was the only plausible explanation.

Here's a plausible explanation: The polls were wrong; the elections were right. Legendary newspaper columnist Mike Royko, brimming with disgust for the polls, often advised his readers to lie to pollsters. Some voters, I'm sure, do. There also are many other ways for the polls to be "wrong." Sometimes the sample of voters polled does not accurately reflect the profile of the actual voters. For example, some experts suggest that conservatives are less willing to share their voter information with strangers, thus tilting the sample to the left. Who knows? Who cares?

Here I'll go out on a limb: Exit polls fail to serve any consequential purpose in the democratic scheme of things; they may even be inimical to the commonweal. No, I'm not suggesting that they should be banned or outlawed. But there's an irony in their compulsive use. When so much is made in this presidential campaign of "unifying" our country, the exit polls shove us into compartments with our "own kind." Exit polls, when they focus excessively on our sociology, magnify our differences. We shouldn't need exit polls to know that we've made significant progress in the last 50 years in coming together. Maybe when reporters and pundits stop hanging on to every detail of exit polls, we'll know that we, as a nation, have grown up.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Dennis, two points: 1. exit polls are done because they are good business. If you do not like them, don't buy them. By writing about them, you must have read them and added to what you perceive as a problem. 2. You write: "...the startling fact that a significant percentage of white males could shrug off their supposedly deep-seated racism..." Is this sarcastic comment meant to say that racism does not exist in the US? If yes, oh so stupid of you. If no, then what is your point?