There are some purists out there who despise all political polls by default. I'm not one of those people. But I do have an aversion to polls that are basically meaningless, particularly when they dominate the news cycle. As the election fast approaches, every other day sees the release of a new poll -- from the LA Times, or Gallup, or NBC News -- offering the latest news on the national popularity contest between Bush and Kerry (with Nader usually thrown in as an alternate 3-way scenario.) When you hear chatter about one side being on the upswing, it's almost always because a new national poll has come out suggesting a few points of change in the race. (Though invariably within the margin of error, given how close the race is.)
But as we learned in the 2000 election, these polls are almost entirely irrelevant to the question of who will win in 2004. Bush could win the popular vote by 3% and still lose in an electoral college landslide, were he to surrrender Florida and Ohio. All that matters are the voters in the swing states -- and it's almost impossible to make any judgment about the shifting views of those voters from a national popularity contest. When I see the headlines again and again reporting national polls, I feel like I'm in some strange kind of wonderland, where the lessons of 2000 have been ignored. Sure, national polls show you general trends in the electorate that might be predictive of trends among voters that matter. But all sorts of polls could do the same. They might as well be running headlines saying: "New poll of unlikely voters shows Bush taking a small lead." Presumably people who don't vote still follow the candidates from a distance, and their changing opinions move roughly in synch with the voting population. But no one runs polls of non-voters because the Founding Fathers devised an ingenious scheme whereby people who choose not to vote don't have a say in who gets to be President. (Funny, huh?) The Framers also came up with another scheme whereby the national popular vote also has nothing to do with who gets to be President. Perhaps someone should alert the pollsters?