March 24, 2015

“Polls are a form of marketing for news organizations,” Tom Rosenstiel of the American Press Institute once wrote. This particular form of marketing may also be driving public policy. The Boston 2024 Committee surrendered to it yesterday.

In a full page ad that ran in The Boston Globe, the Committee made ten promises. Number 10 was “A majority of people in Massachusetts support bidding for the 2024 Olympic and Paralympic Games.” Whatever you think of Boston 2024, they had to be driven to Number 10 (and much of the rest of the promises) by media reports of falling poll numbers.

This may not seem so bad – Boston 2024 has been coming across as a ham-handed pack of business and political elites charging ahead with little regard for public sentiment. But much of the discussion of the bid is likely to be driven by polls and we should understand what that is all about: marketing, branding, entertainment.

For example, in the 2014 gubernatorial election the mass of polling brought the campaign to be seen through the prism of media driven polls. According to the HuffPost Pollster, there were thirty-one polls in the 2010 governor’s race. In 2014, that number rose to fifty-eight. In the 2010 gubernatorial, three media organizations were responsible for thirteen of the thirty-one polls. In 2014, eight media outlets published forty of the fifty-eight polls.  Polls aren’t cheap. These companies (and non-profit media) needed to recover their investment.

Two outlets, the Globe and WBUR, committed to polling each week of the campaign; the Globe in June, WBUR post-primary. Without the campaign all but WBUR and its partner MassInc Polling Group have dropped out. (This is not a bad thing since WBUR/MassInc did the best and most thorough job in 2014). It is the WBUR/MassInc polls that are driving the media frame and the Boston 2024 response.

A good deal of the falling poll numbers relate to performance problems at the MBTA. Why should we bid for an Olympics when we can’t run public transportation during the winter, goes the thinking. Public transportation wasn’t on anyone’s mind until it collapsed. Since then there have been various efforts to apportion blame and assess how various figures are doing in response. Are average citizens able to offer informed views on such topics? In Amusing Ourselves to Death, Neil Postman observed that polls ask us a lot of questions about which most of us have very little knowledge. Postman argues it is better to call these responses “emotions rather than opinions,” based as they are on little deliberation and subject to change.

Boston 2024 head Richard Davey told the Globe yesterday that the committee would need public support to go forward, but didn’t commit to how that would be measured. It could mean a referendum – or even polling results!

WBUR/MassInc has hit the jackpot here – their commitment to continue polling is paying off. Who knew we’d have storms that would collapse the T and provide such opportunities?

Now Boston 2024 has sacralized the notion of polling to decide the outcome. Look for several other media businesses to jump into the Olympics polling fray. It’s just business.

Boston 2024, polling

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