The following piece was produced through OffTheBus, a citizen journalism project hosted at the Huffington Post and launched in partnership with NewAssignment.Net. For more information, read Arianna Huffington's project introduction. If you'd like to join our blogging team, sign up here If you're interested in other opportunities, you can see the list here.
Note: The questions I was asked in these polls do not deviate in the slightest from the truth. I have had to reconstruct them from memory, so the placement of "Press #1 or #2" may vary slightly from the actual poll; questions are paraphrased only to the degree that memory serves -- so the words may not be in the exact order they were in originally, but I have not changed a meaningful word or the distinct flavor of the polling otherwise. Obviously, I have omitted the ordinary (and forgettable) questions. If it hadn't happened to me, I'd never have believed it. This is how it felt.
2008 looms large. Another national election, another chance to have our say, to opine from the voting booth. As soon as we know what we think. What we want. Who we want to give us what we want for four years. Some of us know exactly who we want. Many others, however, don't have a clue. It's all so confusing during primary season.
Thank God for polls. They're everywhere. They tell us who's in, who's out, and who's sinking faster than Dubya in a vat of truth serum. If polls tell us most people support, say, Giuliani over McCain or Clinton over Obama, we don't have to think hard. Or read much. Or learn a thing. No muscle tension headaches from all that exertion. Most people must be right. Only trouble is we don't know who those most people are or how they made their choices. None of us ever gets polled.
I live and work in South Carolina, a state as red as a ripe tomato. Nobody cares what we think. It's a given: We're a hard-wired Republican bloc. The only polling experience we've ever had en masse was the 2000 George W. inspired push-polling from some guy asking if "...you'd vote McCain if you knew the man was a liar and a cheat?" or "Would knowing John McCain fathered an illegitimate black child make you more likely or less likely to vote for him?" I can tell you, in all sincerity, I feel left out.
Or I did. Until a new, early primary date changed everything. Suddenly we're more important nationally than we've been since Cotton was King and we were first to secede from the Union.
My inbox becomes my gateway to the world of political polls. Folks want to know what I think, what my choices are apt to be. Heady stuff. I'm in the middle of a love/hate relationship with pollsters -- and it's not entirely my fault. I'm polled online by PollingPoint. One of their polls gives me the opportunity to vote for every conceivable match-up: Clinton vs. Giuliani, Clinton vs. McCain, Romney, et al. Edwards is in there, too. It was great fun. Empowering and all. Except for one minor flaw. Barack Obama was not included. Odd, I thought, considering he's got the second spot, solidly ahead of Edwards. What did it mean? How did that compute in an accurate portrayal of the race to the primaries?
Zogby International offered me the chance to be a part of their Online Survey Panel. I jumped at it. I like Zogby. But even there problems arise. One of my online policy wonk pals lives in Chicago. She's a Zogby Panel member, too. We compare notes. On the same day that she was polled about politics and candidates I was polled about bottled water and tainted spinach. Look at my zip code, people. Does a rural Southerner drink Perrier? Dadgum! Some of us are glad to have a well and a clean bucket.
They did pose some near-political questions about China's propensity of late to poison us all with toothpaste and lead-laced toys. "Would you be willing to pay more for U.S. products you felt were safe?" I could answer "Yes", "No" or "Unsure." There was no "I'm not at all sure, given the regulation-free notion of good corporate policy these days, that a U.S. company wouldn't happily poison my family and me for profit" option provided. To their credit, they did ask this rural Southerner some agriculture-related questions. Maybe they were political. I might remember what they were if I were coversant in farm-speak. I'm not. We don't farm. I want issues of war, peace and diplomacy; healthcare, the environment, candidates who speak to me. I feel snubbed...
Zogby's polled me a number of times since then. They've asked me how many five-star hotels I've frequented, which one most recently. None and none. They keep asking me, over and again, if my passport is valid. I keep saying "No" and they keep asking. Is this the MMPI of polls? Do they keep asking the same questions until they uncover some deep, fundamental truth? Am I anal retentive? Do I suffer a persecution complex?
Okay. Online polls aren't real anyway, I tell myself. The telephone poll is the standard, what matters most. I covet one, but none comes.
Until the second week in July. My phone rings and it is, at last, my turn. Mine. I'm polled by the kind folks at Rasmussen Reports. They've been tracking political races for over a decade. They are, they tell me, very accurate. I am, of course, thrilled. I like accuracy. And I get to be one of that esteemed most people crowd in the good old, red-white-and-blue traditional way. Chalk one up for a very smart, flaming liberal South Carolinian.
I take a deep breath, get my trigger finger poised to press #1 or #2 on my touch-tone. My nostrils flare like a racehorse. I'm hot to trot. First I have to answer all the usual stuff: My age, sex, party of preference, income. A warm-up. Then the fun begins...
"Press #1 if you feel the country is on the right track. Press #2 if you feel we're off course." That one's easy. We're more than off course, honey. We're off the map. I press #2 and I feel good.
Now some of it gets a little complicated.
"Hillary Clinton chose to stay with her husband despite his infidelity. Does this make you more likely to vote for her (press #1) or less likely to vote for her (press #2)." I'm stuck. There's no "Press #3 if you don't give a rat's patootie what she decided to do about her marriage" option. I'd never choose not to vote for her over the infidelity factor. Ridiculous. But...she's not my first choice for the Dem nod...so I press #2, but I feel guilty about it.
Later, things get more bizarre.
"If Dick Cheney needed a kidney and asked for one of yours, would you say 'Yes' (press #1) or 'No' (press #2)?" There's no "If you're committed to using both of your kidneys for the foreseeable future but would humanely advise him to drink more water and offer to pray for him, press #3" option. I can't stand the guy. I might whack him one if I got the chance, but I wouldn't kill him. I'm a nice, church-going lady. I hesitate, but I press #2. At worst I'm passive/aggressive (ask Zogby). If he dies, he dies. There's always dialysis and he can afford it. He's got big Halliburton war-bucks and government health insurance that probably covers prescriptions for Viagra, acupuncture and hair replacement.
I'm beginning to have my doubts about this polling and accuracy business. I imagine hearing this next: "Would you rather shoot yourself in the head (press #1) or vote Republican in 2008 (press #2)?" Die or cry. What a choice.
"Are you afraid of circus clowns? Press #1 for 'Yes', press #2 for 'No.'" What the--?
What do circus clowns have to do with this? Is Bozo running? Have I missed something? I press #2. The best thing -- at the circus -- is a good clown. But I worry about it.
And it's over. The robo-voice thanks me and disconnects. I Google "psychology: fear of clowns" and the news is not good. There is a phobia. Seems the exaggerated-happy-face clown who beats up a smaller clown or kicks a dog scares some folks silly. You never know what evil lurks behind that big red smile.
The only memorable candidate mentioned was Hillary Clinton. The only issue, her marriage. The sole Republican featured was Dick Cheney -- well, Cheney's kidney. And the clown? I'm still not sure about him. I think maybe he's that scary guy in the Oval Office now.
There's a lesson to be learned here. You can't entirely trust polls. One wrong answer in the Rasmussen Poll and I skewed the results. I should have pressed #1. I'm terrified of clowns.
Would you like to share your experience being polled? Send an email to email@example.com with "POLLING" in the subject. Tell us the questions you were asked, what firm polled you, where you live, and the date and time you were contacted.
The above piece was produced through OffTheBus, a citizen journalism project hosted at the Huffington Post and launched in partnership with NewAssignment.Net. For more information, read Arianna Huffington's project introduction. If you'd like to join our blogging team, sign up here. If you're interested in other opportunities, you can see the list here.