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Second Opinion: Whims of fickle voters make polls worthless

Published: Saturday, Feb. 8, 2014 1:15 a.m. CDT
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Executive Editor Larry Lough

New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie won re-election by a landslide in the first week of November.

Still, national polls that week showed that if he were running for president against Hillary Clinton, he would lose.

Within a couple of weeks, the polls had shifted to indicate Christie would win the White House in a mid-November election.

What had Clinton done? Nothing.

But the clunky rollout of the Affordable Care Act website, under a Democratic administration, had caused public opinion to change in a Christie-Clinton presidential race.

Such are the whims of would-be voters in meaningless surveys.

TODAY, OF COURSE, the New Jersey bridge scandal has changed things (again).

Polls now show Clinton would clobber Christie if the election for president were held today.

Which it won’t be.

Which is why such polls are little more than worthless fodder for a lazy news media.

Perhaps the numbers mean something to campaign strategists for potential candidates.

Maybe possible contributors to the 2016 presidential campaigns have an interest in where they might make the best investment in influence buying.

But why should the rest of us care?

WHEN REPORTING recent approval ratings for President Obama, a CNN reporter tried to explain to viewers why such information matters for a president who cannot seek re-election.

He said the poll numbers 1) indicated the president’s standing with the American people and 2) reflected the president’s clout with Congress.

What he didn’t explain is why – even if his assumptions were correct – it makes any difference.

This editor dislikes (abhors, detests, hates) such polling for two reasons:

1) The news media’s obsession with approval ratings implies that political leaders should be more interested in being popular than in doing the right thing. That’s especially bad because the No. 1 priority of too many elected officials is getting re-elected.

2) Extensive and persistent news coverage of surveys gives the public a false sense of the importance of polling, which – as the Christie-Clinton question tells us – can shift with the wind. The fleeting nature of public opinion makes most political polling worthless.

For those who are counting, we are 2 years, 8 months, 24 days (more or less) from the 2016 presidential election.

Think anything might happen between now and then that would affect your actual vote for president?

WHICH BRINGS US to Bruce Rauner and next month’s primary election in Illinois.

Recent polling indicates that gazillionaire Rauner has a sizable lead in a four-way race for the Republican nomination for governor.

Because that election is just weeks – rather than years – away, such polling might have some validity.

But then, much of the support that Rauner enjoys in the polls would, in political terms, be called “soft.”

Why? Because he’s the only guy (yes, they’re all guys) blanketing the airwaves with political ads.

Because he has raised lots of campaign cash (much of it from himself), he has been able to afford an early and extensive advertising campaign on TV.

If nothing else, the first-time candidate has significantly improved his public name recognition (from zero). But that’s not the same as a committed vote.

A little qualitative polling would probably tell you that the public (even your typical Republican voter) has almost no idea of Rauner’s main campaign issues or how they differ from his three opponents.

Your typical voter couldn’t even tell you who the three others are.

How about you?

FOR THE RECORD, they are – unlike Rauner – political veterans: two state senators, Bill Brady and Kirk Dillard, and the state’s treasurer, former legislator Dan Rutherford.

You can bet that when they – and the state’s public employee unions – start their TV campaigns, Rauner’s numbers will fall.

The unions are repulsed by Rauner’s repeated public promises (threats) to take on the “union bosses” who, he would have you believe, are running state government.

So their TV ads will focus on stopping Rauner.

Brady, Dillard and Rutherford find a much easier target in bashing Democratic Gov. Pat Quinn, but they know they first have to slay Rauner’s political ambitions in the March 18 Republican primary.

So their TV ads will focus on stopping Rauner.

It might not be pretty.

LATE FEBRUARY and early March polling in the governor’s race should be interesting.

Meaningless, but interesting – if only to monitor the change in Rauner’s numbers.

A candidate can easily win a four-way race with much less than a third of the vote.

We know the threat that Rauner, truly a man with nothing to lose politically, poses to public employee unions.

But does his independence also represent such a threat to the Republican political establishment that a couple of his opponents might form a coalition to try to stop him?

Remember: the only polls that count this year will be taken on March 18 and Nov. 4.

Be sure to participate.

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