In December of last year, a certain Peter Hart wrote an opinion column for Fairness And Accuracy In Reporting (FAIR). Hart decried the prevalence of polling in political coverage. Not only did he cast aspersions on the accuracy and reliability of polls, he identified them as a sinister threat to no less than “American Democracy.” “The more fundamental problem for the press — and for American democracy —” wrote Hart, “is that the media’s overreliance on polls encourages a kind of political conversation that prioritizes strategic consideration and tactics over substance.” He didn’t know how right he was. Today, Peter Hart Associates released the results of a poll of their own, gauging support for an auto industry bailout. Read the results in the Detroit News and you might be surprised. Read the poll itself and the Hart Associates client list, and that surprise should evaporate faster than Mr Hart’s ideals regarding polls and their cynical abusers.
Let’s start with the substance of the poll, which would probably send Karl Rove into an ecstasy of nostalgia. After the usual demographic and exclusionary (no media, no auto workers) questions, the first substantive query shows where things are headed.
How important do you feel the American automobile industry is to the American economy–extremely important, very important, somewhat important, not important, or not at all important?
Needless to say there’s no satisfactory way to answer this question, let alone any metric provided to measure “importance.” Anyone who knows nothing about cars or the car business knows there’s only one answer here: somewhere between “extremely important” and “very important.”
As the questions go on, they make it clear that this poll isn’t about ascertaining public opinion. It’s about communicating and legitimizing pro-bailout arguments. In Hart’s words, “the prioritization of strategic consideration and tactics over substance.”
You know the pro-bailout arguments; we’ve sliced them and diced them all over this blog. Presented in their most misleading forms as questions, is it any surprise that they poll… decently? Actually, the poll result’s relative ambivalence is surprising, considering how questions’ inherent bias.
“The federal government has recently provided financial aid to the insurance and banking industries to make sure that these industries do not fail. Do you feel that providing financial aid to ensure that the U.S. auto industry does not fail is more important, just as important, or less important?” Only 14 percent answered “more.” Just 55 percent picked the obvious “correct” answer: “just as important.”
The scaremongering picks-up as the poll goes on, with subsequent questions asking respondents to rate the “importance” of a host of possible dire consequences of industry failure. Not that there are any guarantees that a bailout would prevent or solve any of these sinister symptoms. Just “which ones scare you the most?” Of course, when these questions meet with even the tiniest amount of context, the Hart poll’s results begin to look like the PR stunt they are.
Alternatively, a Rasmussen poll which asks the respondent to examine the entire economy and base priorities from there finds that 45 percent of Americans oppose a GM bailout, with 20 percent undecided. The same poll shows that the automotive industry has actually fallen eleven points as a priority since March 2007. Oh yeah, and 80 percent were “concerned the government is getting too involved in the private economy.”
Again, this is in the context of the larger economic picture. Only by looking at the auto industry through the wrong end of a telescope could Hart achieve the results his clients paid for.
Bias is evident enough in the substance of the post (have a look for yourself). But a quick peek at Hart Associates’ online client list is the final piece of the puzzle. Politically, it’s all Democrats, many from automaker states (with their party affiliation left unstated). On the corporate front, Hart’s benefactors include “DaimlerChrysler,” as well as notorious federal teat-sucklers Boeing and Fannie Mae. Then there’s the United Auto Workers, the AFL-CIO, Teamsters, SEIU and other unions, large and small.
In short, Hart works for this country’s biggest bailout backers, from the worlds of industry, politics and labor. Including of course, the big Kahuna: GM. As the Detroit News puts it, “General Motors Corp. paid for the poll but had no input or review of the design, methodology, content or interpretation.” Then again, why would they handsomely reward Hart if he wasn’t pro enough to give them exactly what they wanted, without them asking?
In any case, opinion polling, as Hart himself lamented, is a dark art. He correctly identified its significant shortcomings a long year ago– only to appropriate the very tactics he denounced in aid of a multi-billion dollar giveaway to failing companies.
And they say the master’s tools will never tear down his house.