POLL? WHAT'S A POLL?

I have this crazy dream: one day, a politician will be asked about some poll result or other, and he or she will respond by saying something other than, "I don't pay any attention to polls."

I realize that we tolerate lots of white lies from our politicians: "It's great to be here!" "Whatever problem is of most concern to you, that's my highest priority." "I don't worry about the politics, I'm just going to do what's right." But would it be so terrible for one of them to say, "Sure, I pay attention to polls. I don't let them influence what I think about issues, but I always want to know what the public thinks, and polls are one of a number of ways to learn. It's part of the job." But no, instead we get this absurd game, where they all pretend that, sure, their campaigns are spending millions of dollars polling, but they don't have any idea what the results are; they just couldn't care less. What a crock.

This comes up because Hillary Clinton delivered the old standby on Sunday's Meet the Press, but I'm sure that at some point in the campaign, each and every one of the presidential candidates has said the same thing. So what if the next time a politician said it, the interviewer did some following up: Really? You don't pay attention to polls? Then why is your campaign doing so much polling? Do they give you memos explaining what your polls are finding? Are you willing to say that you've never read one of those memos? Are you saying you've never had a conversation with your pollster about what your polls find? Aren't you insulting our intelligence by claiming you don't pay attention to polls?

The "I don't pay attention to polls" line is always disingenuous, but it's particularly so coming from Clinton. Every campaign has its principal strategist, the one overseeing the big picture and consulting with the candidate constantly. Who is Clinton's? Why, it's her pollster, Mark Penn. Are we supposed to believe that when Penn starts to tell her about what his polling shows, she sticks her fingers in her ears and says, "Nananana, I'm not listening!"

By the way, our president, who has said hundreds of times that he doesn't pay attention to polls, is actually a voracious consumer of them, as Josh Green reported in the Washington Monthly in 2002. It's a great article, still worth reading.

--Paul Waldman

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