The Polls Get Stupider

When I was a spratling, I thought the lyrics to Jimmy Buffet’s song went, “Blew on my flip-flop/ and stepped off the top dock” and that this is what happened to helpless alcoholics. Later on I learned that Jimmy was Warren Buffet’s son, and then it all made sense. Probably those billionaire types blew on flip-flops for good luck, conceivably as totems of comfortable retirement. It is a tradition for artists to keep a nude Tahitian woman around for the same purpose. So you can imagine my surprise when flip-flops started showing up in political polls. I was intrigued. And not just intrigued, I was also painted blue. But that is another story. What concerns us for the nonce is this flip-flopping thing. To read the latest polls, you’d think John Kerry and Jimmy Buffet hung out together, blowing on flip-flops.

According to the LA Times (and you couldn’t ask for a more authoritative source, at least for local movie listings), “when asked which candidate was more likely to flip-flop on issues, almost twice as many named Kerry than Bush.” This is a classic example of why polls are useless, and worse than useless, unuseful. Since when was “which candidate is most likely to flip-flop on the issues” a valid poll question? What is flip-flopping, exactly? I’m guessing it’s not about footwear. I would say it’s a pejorative term for “reversing one’s position”. Now when I was coming up in the world, reversing one’s position wasn’t inherently bad, because there was such a thing as “facing the wrong direction”. A friend of mine ended up underneath a tractor because of this. But that is another story. What concerns us anonce the nonce is the bias inherent in even asking such a stupid question, as stupidly as it was asked.

A poll is supposed to be value neutral, although they never are. Scientists can tell you (and they drone on and on) how hard it is to write a completely neutral poll question. But this one is a sockdolager. First, those persons attempting to win Bush his first election have artificially established that flip-flopping is a Bad Thing, like necrophilia (Ronald Reagan excluded). But one man’s flip-flop is another man’s adjustment to reality. A fellow who discovers he will get scorch marks on his face if he presses it to a hotplate, and therefore stops pressing his face to a hotplate but instead immerses it in crushed ice, is not flip-flopping. He’s responding to “the facts on the ground” or in scientific terms, “negative stimuli”. Scientists also have a term for the guy who keeps his face on the hotplate: “badly burned lunatic”. We don’t see any poll questions asking “which candidate is most likely to keep his face pressed to a hotplate no matter how stupid it is, Bush or Kerry?” Phrased in this way, Kerry would get benefit of the doubt, and be significantly less disfigured. Of course even this question doesn’t really work; the real question is “which candidate is more likely to keep your face pressed to a hotplate” Because Bush wouldn’t do anything that might cause him personal discomfort. Kerry volunteered for Vietnam, so you never know.

So flip-flopping is just a nasty way of expressing the notion of flexibility. The LA Times found that “By a resounding 58% to 16%, poll respondents said the phrase ‘too ideological and stubborn’ applied more to Bush than to Kerry.” (I liked that question, although it’s equally stupid). The Bush team is trying to cast Bush’s greatest weakness (pathological obstinacy) as an antidote to Kerry’s greatest weakness (flip-flopping). To put this kind of Lewis Carroll spin into a poll question is to give the accusation merit. And worse, it sets up a false polarity.

Bush may be too rigid, but Kerry is too floppy. Black or white. Chocolate or Vanilla. A better way to phrase the question would have been, “which candidate is most likely to change his policies over time?” The answer would still be Kerry, but the question is no longer charged with unspoken menace. Rephrase it to “which candidate is most likely to adjust his policies over time?” and you can get rid of the question about who’s too ideological and stubborn, as well. Then the reader can decide whether adjusting policies is a suitable approach to governance or not (yes, it is, by the way). If we’re going to write stupid poll questions, let’s make them count. Let’s get down to real issues, not this nonsense about the relative tensile qualities of the candidates. Free of charge, here’s a great poll question for your next opinion-gathering junket: “which candidate got us into this mess?” Please write your answer on a five-dollar bill and send it to me, care of the publisher. I’ll buy some new flip-flops.

BEN TRIPP is a screenwriter and cartoonist, who lives in a large human settlement 100 miles south of Bakersfield, which we cannot name for security reasons. Ben also has a lot of outrageously priced crap for sale here. A collection of Tripp’s essays, Square in the Nuts, will be published this summer. If his writing starts to grate on your nerves, buy some and maybe he’ll flee to Mexico. If all else fails, he can be reached at:

Ben Tripp is America’s leading pseudo-intellectual. His most recent book is The Fifth House of the Heart.