Effective Public Opinion
James B. Lemert
As we saw in the preceding chapter, popular knowledge can be so low about so many things that measuring preferences without first measuring knowledge can produce essentially meaningless percentages.
For example, the polls too often confuse knowledge with popularity by asking people for their candidate preferences instead of finding out first whether people even know the names of the candidates. Because of this failure to measure knowledge, if and when a previously unknown Democrat or Republican candidate makes a big surge in a preference poll, the poll-fascinated news media interpret the surge as reflecting a massive change in attitudes toward the candidates, instead of as the natural outgrowth of a gain in name familiarity.
A classic example of this misinterpretation occurred in Oregon during the 1990 campaign for the U.S. Senate between incumbent Republican Mark Hatfield and Democrat Harry Lonsdale. Lonsdale had been trailing Hatfield in a poll for The Oregonian by more than 40 percentage points in the late summer. Then, in late September and early October, Lonsdale, a wealthy businessman who had never before run for public office and was virtually unknown to Oregon voters, ran a series of "attack" ads against Hatfield. The hard-hitting ads for the first time caused much news coverage of Lonsdale's campaign against Hatfield. Many Democrats, once they knew something about Lonsdale, quickly fell in line behind him. Since there are more Democrats in Oregon than Republi-