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August 11, 2015

Last Tuesday I discussed what kind of political discourse polling produces on an issue like the Boston Olympics and what tying the fate of a public policy decision to approval ratings might mean for moneyed and less well-off advocates. Today I’d like to push the discussion along to what numbers mean, what answers may mean, the effect of polling on the republican form of government, and some closing thoughts.

When we see that a professional pollster like MassInc Polling Group finds that 42% favor a Boston Olympics and 50% oppose we can take that as an accurate, scientifically based reflection of the public’s current attitude. But in politics numbers are never simple static representations; they are dynamic tools of political persuasion. Deborah Stone makes this argument in her book Policy Paradox: The Art of Political Decision Making. In the Olympics story there were certain numbers bandied about – Boston2024 had to have xx% approval by one date and xx+5% approval by a later date, etc., and political arguments about trends, progress or lack of progress, etc., could be constructed around such numbers. When Steve Koczela wrote in The Topline, Special Edition: You Killed the Bid that “if public support had been around 80 percent, leaders at all levels would likely be racing one another to the nearest podium to express any necessary measure of support for the Games” he was probably right. And that would be so whether the idea was a good one or not.

Forget 80% though, by the time of death Boston 2024 wasn’t getting near 50%. How much did respondents (for or against) understand of the Olympics bid? In Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business, Neil Postman critiques polls as registering not reasoned thought but emotion. Mr. Koczela wrote of Bid 2.0: “With little effort in terms of communications to support it, Bid 2.0 landed like a tree in a distant forest. Most said they were paying little attention to it; three-fifths said its details would make no difference to their opinion on the bid.” This sounds like few people were willing to consider new information, and even fewer were willing to alter their opinions based on new information.

As the bid gasped toward its death we can only imagine the Brattle Group experts scribbling madly away to finish their report to the legislature and Governor Baker. As the governor stated repeatedly, he wasn’t going to take a position until Brattle completed its independent analysis. Polling thus helped short circuit the normal functioning of representative government in which the officials we have entrusted to chart the path forward obtain the best information available, deliberate, test the political winds, and make decisions. In this manner public decision making by poll alters the republican form of government.

Perhaps I am over wary. Polling and efforts of NoBostonOlympics, NoBoston2024, and 10peopleontwitter, and elected officials like Councilor Tito Jackson exposed a process that was insular, secretive, and elitist. Polling produced numbers for advocates on either side to make arguments, and that kept pressure on Boston2024 to alter its plans and release Bid 1.0. I’ll let others choose the winners and losers and heroes but polling helped in inspiring opposition. The experience showed a new permeability in who influences policy in Boston and that is a good thing.

So politics has and will continue to change, and media polling will be part of it. That is worth at least as much caution as excitement. On the same day that the Boston Globe announced layoffs in the news room, WCVB tweeted its coverage of a cat having its leg amputated after suffering a gunshot wound. In other words the public is at risk of further diminution and silliness in its news coverage. Horse race polls are popular with consumers and cheaper than a good reporter. Survey research itself faces challenging times as fewer people have land lines and fewer of them will answer. Some pollsters turn to Interactive Voice Response and other less reliable methods of polling, and these results nonetheless get in the news. So hungry for content are news organizations that even MassFiscal’s recent “fraud poll” got some coverage.

All of these considerations and more should have the public thinking about the uses, abuses, and proliferation of media polls. There will be many more polls, and the public won’t be making many of the decisions about them.

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