Behold, the Masters of the Poll; in the Final Part of His Series on American Politics, Political Editor Jason Beattie Visits Washington DC to Examine the Shady World of Pollsters

By Beattie, Jason | The Birmingham Post (England), August 11, 2000 | Go to article overview
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Behold, the Masters of the Poll; in the Final Part of His Series on American Politics, Political Editor Jason Beattie Visits Washington DC to Examine the Shady World of Pollsters


Beattie, Jason, The Birmingham Post (England)


Come with me on a journey. At times it will be disturbing, at other moments it will be illuminating.

Prepare to be to surprised and outraged in equal measure: we are going inside a pollster's mind.

These animals may be creatures of the night in the UK but here, in Washington, they are not just a feature on the political landscape next to the Washington Memorial, they are the most prominent thing on it.

Mr Blair's private pollster, Philip Gould, who has been known to hide in Downing Street closets rather than brave the sunlight of policy discussion, could announce his presence in America with the pride of a gay rights activist on a day trip to San Francisco.

This, you must remember, is Washington - a city which only exists for politics. It has no other function but to talk, breathe, gossip and consume the political process. And at the moment the most influential movers and shakers in this Machiavellian maelstrom, the kings of the Washington heap, are the pollsters. The Washington Post quotes them with the same authority it grants to Senators and Congressmen.

Talk show hosts supinely give way as these men and women opine on their programmes.

No ambitious politician, of whatever rank, would leave home without one. These people don't just influence the political debate, they shape it.

We are in an era of post spin, where the battle between substance and style was lost years ago, where political debate is not about policy but presentation and where the message has become the most essential part of a presidential campaign.

And this is the important thing: however much you may hate it, these masters of manipulation are coming to Britain with a force which will make the invasions of McDonalds, Starbucks and Coca Cola seem like minor forays.

As the pollsters increase in importance our political process is going to change dramatically - we too are going to enter the era of post spin.

A pollster is not just someone who conducts polls. These people are into wholesale cosmetic surgery of the political process.

A leading Democrat pollster I spoke to guaranteed his organisation could increase a candidate's percentage points in any political race.

Even if the politician concerned was a philandering, sleaze-tainted, balding, overweight, slime-ball with the personality of a chicken burger, this company said they could improve his or her standing at the count.

'We are in the process of message development,' he said.

Once the pollster has been contracted by the political party he will immediately begin a process called 'Immersion'.

In the old days this was known as getting to know your patch. In the States it is gathering every possible statistic about the constituency and storing it on a computer.

They will know which parts are dominated by the elderly, the percentage of Hispanic voters, the average turn-out in previous elections, the history of the constituency, the key issues, the name of the sheriff's dog . . .

Then they start a series of focus groups. Everyone in America does focus groups; unions, businesses, bus companies all do them.

Holding a focus group is as normal as flossing your teeth.

They are not used as polls but as 'idea generators'.

As the pollster explained 'real people may be thinking about issues in different ways'.

Then comes the Benchmark Survey. This is the polling proper. Thousands of phone calls are made in which people are asked to react to a series of statements about the candidate and the opposition candidate.

This is then used as the basis of the campaign.

If, for example, they find your candidate is regarded as strong on leadership but weak on moral values then they will concentrate the whole campaign on the former.

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Behold, the Masters of the Poll; in the Final Part of His Series on American Politics, Political Editor Jason Beattie Visits Washington DC to Examine the Shady World of Pollsters
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