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How About an Election Without Polls?

ColumnMarch 10, 2016
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By Amy Goodman and Denis Moynihan

Sen. Bernie Sanders won the Democratic presidential primary in Michigan, defeating Hillary Clinton … and all the pollsters. Election statistician Nate Silver wrote that Sanders’ Michigan victory “will count as among the greatest polling errors in primary history.” Imagine if we had an election season without polls. Instead, the energy, investigation and money should be spent delving into candidates’ records, whether they’re a businessman like Donald Trump or they’re politicians like Hillary Clinton or Bernie Sanders. This will lead to a better informed, more engaged electorate.

Why should it matter who our neighbors are voting for, or people who live across the state? Let each person make his or her decision on how to vote not on polling numbers, but on the actual positions staked out by the candidates. Primaries, caucuses and Election Day are the ultimate polls. These are the reliable numbers, hard data, on how actual, hopefully well-informed citizens voted. Then the pundits, rather than speculating on how imaginary voters might act, can discuss reality.

It is astounding that Bernie Sanders is where he is today. Look at the Tyndall Report’s summary of Campaign 2016 coverage. Andrew Tyndall has offered an independent daily analysis of the flagship evening news programs on CBS, NBC and ABC since the late 1980s. For the calendar year 2015, Tyndall writes, these networks produced more than 17 hours of reporting on the presidential campaigns. That’s over 1,000 minutes of national broadcast television airtime. Donald Trump received 327 minutes, or close to one-third of all the campaign coverage.

Bernie Sanders received just 20 minutes. Hillary Clinton got 121 minutes of campaign coverage, six times the amount Sanders received. In one striking example of the disparate coverage, “ABC World News Tonight” aired 81 minutes of reports on Donald Trump, compared with just 20 seconds for Sanders.

The commercial networks have an inherent conflict of interest as well. Hundreds of millions of dollars are spent by the campaigns and by countless super PACs, buying advertising time to promote their candidate or issue. The more reporting the networks do, the less the candidates will feel the need to buy ad time to inform potential supporters of their positions. Since television remains the primary source of news for most Americans, this conflict of interest creates a major barrier to an informed public.

The primaries determine the candidates of the two major parties. Put aside for the moment that the almost absolute blackout on reporting on third parties all but guarantees that these candidates, whether from the Green Party or from the Libertarian Party, for example, will have almost no traction in the national elections. Voter turnout in this year’s primary elections has been historically high but, in a real sense, dismally low. The Pew Research Center reports that, in this year’s first 12 primaries, Republicans have turned out 17.3 percent of eligible voters, while Democrats have turned out 11.7 percent. These are record-high numbers, according to Pew, but consider just how low they are: More than 82 percent of Republicans and more than 88 percent of Democrats didn’t vote.

Certainly, new impediments to voting, like requirements to have specific forms of photo identification, decrease participation. Indeed, some argue, many new laws were designed specifically to deter participation of poor people and people of color in the electoral process, thus favoring Republican candidates. “We always do well when the voter turnout is high,” Sanders said at a large campaign rally on Tuesday night in Miami, before learning of his victory in Michigan, “and we do poorly when the voter turnout is low.”

Networks generally have a policy of not releasing exit-polling data until polls close in order not to discourage voters from participating. Exit polls might indicate that a candidate is trailing or far ahead, and people might then feel that their vote wouldn’t make a difference. We should extend this policy to the entire election.

We need a vigorous debate in the country about war and peace, the growing inequality between the rich and the rest of us, about immigration, education, mass incarceration, racism and so much more. And we need an engaged electorate, empowered by information and enabled to vote. Our democracy demands no less.

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