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Polls, the media and profit

Barry Kay: Polling is a business; the interest of pollsters is not to educate the public

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Polls and the presidential elections Pt. 3

PAUL JAY, SENIOR EDITOR: Welcome back to our interview with Barry Kay on polling and the coming US elections. Barry, the election campaigns themselves are like Coke and Pepsi advertising campaigns. It’s a battle of brands. There is in fact more real policy, if one dug into it. You can find Obama and McCain policy positions, and it sometimes gets quite sophisticated. You certainly wouldn’t know it by hearing the election campaigns. Most people don’t know that McCain’s senior foreign policy advisor is Randy Scheunemann, who was a paid lobbyist for Georgia. You have to be a blogger, Internet, sophisticated viewer to know that McCain has such a biased input on the Georgia issue. Most people don’t know that Obama’s—one of his senior foreign policy consultants, Brzezinski, has called for full spectrum dominance and endorses a plan to assert American power in the Caucasus and the encirclement of Russia. But if you dig into the issues of what’s really at stake here, people would find a much more urgent need, I think, to know more. Is there any push-back that one can actually see from polling that says people are fed up with the superficiality of elections?

BARRY KAY, ASSOCIATE PROFESSOR, WILFRID LAURIER UNIVERSITY: Some are. Part of the problem, though, the people that are really committed about issues—and there are lots of people that are, and maybe there are people that tend to be in the audience, you know, watching this right now that have very strong commitments—those tend not to be sort of the marginal swing voter. Those are people that are committed on the left or on the right and tend to support one side or another. And in a close election, which at the moment this one has all the earmarks of being, in a close election, those people aren’t going to change. So, actually, the marginal voter, the voter that’s going to swing it from a 50-49, or to the one side or the other, those people are the less-informed voter, the kind of voter that will in fact be influenced by the more superficial issues.

JAY: But is part of the problem the polling itself? Like, if you do a poll with Hillary Clinton and Obama, or now you can do it with Obama and McCain, you know, "change versus experience," so you do polling based on advertising slogans. But if you did a polling based on "Are you aware that, for example"—either I’m talking about Brzezinski’s plan, or Scheunemann and McCain—"Are you aware that, for example, Randy Scheunemann was a lobbyist for Georgia and now advises John McCain. Would this affect your vote?" In other words, if you did polling that helped people dig into what the issues are and what they then think about them, wouldn’t that give us quite different results than polling on change versus experience?

KAY: The marginal—again, it depends on how you sort of see your clientèle. But if you’re going for 51 percent of the electorate, that isn’t the way to win elections, because the kind of people that are concerned about these issues are people that are not likely to move from one side to the other.

JAY: No, I’m talking about the responsibility of people doing the polling. Shouldn’t they be asking more real questions?

KAY: Well, that gets into their motivations. And, frankly, a lot of the pollsters are there basically to sell. They don’t make money on these political polls. They’re basically trying to get brand recognition so that they can then sell their products to whatever other corporate enterprises there are in the four years between elections. That’s not to say they want to get bad results, but the interest of pollsters isn’t primarily to educate the public; it’s to try to provide some sort of barometer of what’s going on, which hopefully will have [inaudible]

JAY: A barometer within a very narrow narrative. It’s the horse race as defined through the campaigns.

KAY: Absolutely. But the media are interested in trying to get as many people to watch their—to consume their media outlet, whether it’s newspapers, electronic, or increasingly now on the Internet. But, yeah, it’s not a particularly edifying process, and that’s probably disappointing to a lot of people.

JAY: And is there anyone doing any polling that tries to dig in on what people really think about the issues and their own problems, rather than the horse race?

KAY: Yeah, but it varies, and, you know, different people that are—. That isn’t primarily what pollsters are about. Pollsters are trying to promote their brand name. They want accurate polls so that they can then claim better credit with regard to the commercial work they’re doing between elections. But, again, I’m perhaps a little more skeptical about the whole media [inaudible] than you were expressing. It may not be your view.

JAY: No, no. If I wasn’t this skeptical, I wouldn’t be doing The Real News Network.

KAY: But the people who are—you know, in the media, too, they’ve got an agenda, and their agenda is getting as many people to watch and consume their particular outlet as possible, and that’s why you get very different kinds within the media. You get Fox News, with a very different kind of potential target audience than CNN or the BBC, and the kind of programming is very different as a result.

JAY: So we wind up polling what’s essentially a spectator sport about advertising campaigns.

KAY: That’s part of the motivation. Frankly, I’m a political junkie, so I love it—I consume as many polls as I can. I certainly don’t put too much faith on any one poll. But overall, when you sort of, you know, aggregate a bunch together, I think they are saying something that’s reasonably interesting and reasonably valid.

JAY: In the next segment of our interview, let’s discuss who’s going to win the 2008 presidential elections. We’ll ask you to look into your polling crystal ball. Please join us for the next segment of our interview with Barry Kay.

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Please note that TRNN transcripts are typed from a recording of the program; The Real News Network cannot guarantee their complete accuracy.