by Dr. G. Terry Madonna and Dr. Michael Young
Today polling is serious business. The industry employs thousands and generates millions in annual revenue. And today's polls seriously matter. Political campaigns rise and fall on the basis of them, and they often influence public policy.
But while polling is serious business, not all polls are serious. There is in fact a large and growing category of polls known as "silly polls," whose main purpose is entertainment. We typically see silly polls most often during presidential elections. In 2004, we are likely to see lots of them. And maybe that is good--a little levity in this solemn election year cannot hurt.
There are actually two types of silly polls, the so called "popcorn polls" and the "folklore polls." The popcorn polls go back to 1964 when Republican Barry Goldwater challenged Democrat Lyndon Johnson for president. The owner of a cinema put pictures of the rival candidates on adjacent popcorn poppers, and then called the media to report Johnson popcorn was outselling Goldwater popcorn two to one. The poll gained some popularity when Johnson did eventually trounce the hapless Goldwater on Election Day.
Since 1964 mutations of the popcorn poll have multiplied prolifically. There are at least five subtypes:
The popcorn polls are all whimsical--designed to be fun and entertaining. No one would take them seriously or rely on them to predict how an election will turn out. The second type of silly poll, the folklore poll is somewhat different. Like popcorn polls, it also entertains and amuses. But unlike popcorn polls, folklore polls do have a following, and are often written about.
As a class they rely on old beliefs and political traditions to forecast electoral outcomes. Typically they correlate some sporting event, business outcome, or candidate characteristic to winning and losing. For example, the Dow Jones average on Election Day, or the number of letters in a candidate's name is used to predict a winner.
Three of the best known folklore polls look to the height of the candidates, the winner of the World Series, and the winner of the last Washington Redskins game before the election.
Overall the accuracy record of the folklore polls inspires little confidence that they will get it right in 2004. Most of them are wrong almost as often as they are right. And that is what you should expect from a silly poll. They are fun, yes, interesting sometimes, but nothing to be taken too seriously.
But the "Washington Redskin Rule" gets a little more respect. The probability of a Redskin victory or defeat correctly forecasting the presidential election 18 elections in a row has been calculated to be about one in 260 million. For those who like to mix football with politics, the Redskins' last game before the election is with the Packers on October 31.
Politically Uncorrected™ is published twice monthly. Dr. G. Terry Madonna is a Professor of Public Affairs at Franklin & Marshall College, and Dr. Michael Young is a former Professor of Politics and Public Affairs at Penn State University and Managing Partner at Michael Young Strategic Research. The opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of any institution or organization with which they are affiliated. This article may be used in whole or part only with appropriate attribution. Copyright © 2004 Terry Madonna and Michael Young.