June 18, 2001
GREEN KETCHUP, that wonderful new condiment that is already enriching the lives of millions of American children between the ages of 3 and 15, was delivered to us via intensive opinion polling and focus groups.
The EZ Squirt Blastin' Green Ketchup by Heinz has been a huge hit with its target audience, even beating out Oreo Magic Dunkers that turn milk blue.
Heinz actually tried blue, but rejected it because green was more "food logical." The green ketchup, which reportedly squirts out looking like liquid spinach, is also heavily fortified with vitamin C to assuage concerns of the parents of the children who consume roughly half the ketchup sold in the United States.
Green ketchup thus proves that polls and focus groups can provide a valid test of public preferences and beliefs, however dubious the preferences themselves may be.
So, we should go easy on politicans who use polls to guide them. But every once in awhile it is useful to consider what it is the polls are reflecting.
News organizations spend wads of dough on polls so that every couple of weeks or so we can be treated to a nice front-page story telling us what we think about this or that.
It often turns out that what we think happens to come from the headlines of the week before.
Unless we are keenly interested in a particular topic, be it Vladimir Putin's governance of Russia or NOx emissions trading or the plight of women in Afghanistan or Tiger Woods' golf game, most of us do not devote vast amounts of time acquainting ourselves with many issues.
We often only have a vague notion of things. Even when we read carefully and widely, news stories can provide only a cursory review of something that is inevitably much more complex, nuanced and detailed. The 30-second snippets that pass for television news must make their subjects shudder.
Nonetheless, our cursory impressions, drawn from tiny scraps of information,
tend to gel into opinions.
Like a house of mirrors, these opinions are then reflected in polls, which then become news, reinforcing the impressions that then form the grounds for lawmakers to make policy.
It is always amazing, when asking voters for their views on political candidates during a campaign, to hear obviously educated people repeat campaign slogans as if they were original thoughts.
A classic case of news polls reflecting news stories occurred the week after Sen. James Jeffords left the Republican party, handing control of the Senate to Democrats. Jeffords gave a speech saying he left the Republican Party because it had become too conservative, a theme Democrats repeated frequently. The next week, the Washington Post and ABC News produced a poll that found, surprise, that "most Americans say Bush should stop aggressively promoting his legislative agenda and instead should compromise with Democratic lawmakers."
Another week went by, and Bush was having a slightly better time of it. He signed his tax bill and was making good progress on his education bill and had a couple of photo-ops in front of giant Sequoias and in the Everglades.
Lo and behold, USA Today/CNN/Gallup came out with a poll showing that "most Americans" agree that Bush has "the personality and leadership qualities a president should have."
Polls also show that more than 90 percent of Americans consider themselves environmentalists. Apparently these same environmentalists are the ones hiring ChemLawn to keep the clover and bees out of their yards.
Polls show that Americans by large margins think energy conservation should be a top priority. But when hotel guests are given the choice of reusing their towels to save energy, water and pollution, hardly anyone does.
Pollsters demand that we tell them what we think even when we are clueless. USA Today/CNN/Gallup asks, is Vladimir Putin an "ally," "friendly but not an ally," "unfriendly," or an "enemy?"
We hope they found the results useful.
Carolyn Lochhead was the Washington correspondent for the San Francisco Chronicle, where she covered national politics and policy for 27 years. She grew up in Paso Robles (San Luis Obispo County) and graduated from UC Berkeley cum laude in rhetoric and economics. She has a masters of journalism degree from Columbia University. Twitter: @carolynlochhead