Polls are the genital warts of election year. They are the swarming gnats in your Jell-O salad, the dead escalator in your shopping mall, the sour milk in your coffee.
Because clearly, if you attempt to follow any of them, the CNN/USA Today/Gallup polls or the American Research Group polls or the Newsweek polls or the ABC News/Washington Post polls or the CBS News/New York Times polls or the Zogby polls, you can only conclude one thing:
These polls are designed solely to mangle your head and confound your synapses and elate you and titillate you and then plunge you into instant despair and then yank you back out at the last second like some sort of "Fear Factor" death-plunge moronism.
I know I am not alone in this sentiment.
Take, for example, how nearly every single poll listed above indicated that, just after the Democratic convention, John Kerry could not lose. He had gained huge numbers on a miserable and baffled Bush and every poll had Kerry nailing Shrub by anywhere from two to six percentage points and he had momentum and a clear message and broad support and it all meant it was Kerry's election to lose and woo-hoo go team break out the champagne.
But wait, not so fast. Because then BushCo had his big, tearful, gay-hatin', war-lovin' GOP convention and whored the 9/11 theme so shamelessly you could veritably feel the World Trade Center victims cringing in their graves.
Now, of course, polls indicate that those pro-Kerry numbers are exactly reversed. Bush's numbers are suddenly up again and have barely broken through that magic 50-percent ceiling that held him in check this past year as the nation had seemed to be finally realizing what an unmitigated embarrassment he was, and suddenly Kerry is lagging behind by those same few points. Hey, it's the polls, baby. They're not supposed to make any goddamn sense.
But they do force you to ask: What the hell just happened? What changed? Why do these polls flip so ridiculously?
Could it be true? Are there simply millions of voters out in this sad and divisive nation who are so gullible, so unsure, so unclear about who they want to vote for that one overblown Vegas-style political convention followed by numerous insidious smear campaigns maligning Kerry's Vietnam heroism could sway them that easily, back and forth and forth and back?
Perhaps this is an "elitist" question, or naive, or simple misguided. Maybe I need to read far more detailed statistical sociopolitical theory, which is about as much fun as having all your skin scraped off with a cheese grater. But I simply know of no one anywhere in my world, from family to friends to family friends to remote acquaintances to the guy who sells me my socks, who is undecided about this election.
Do these people exist? Or are the polls merely wicked phantasmagorical allegories designed by the media to boost sales and pump ratings and numb the intellect and ruin your appetite for reason? I know my answer.
Because if you're paying any sort of attention at all, the differences between the party stances seems so agonizingly obvious, between not just the candidates, but between the tone and timbre of the country overall, of how we should be led and how we should be viewed and how we should be spoken to, between the openly violent, peace-hating, fear-happy, environment-loathing, homophobic worldview of the Bushies, and the more tolerant, issues-oriented, politically intelligent, less tyrannical worldview of the Kerryites on the other.
So then, who are the people so openly duped by the gluttonous TV coverage of either of the conventions that they watch the Dems and says, wow, that Kerry fellow sure is smart and articulate and, gosh, he's even a decorated 'Nam vet, I'm voting for him.
And who then spis right around and watched Dubya cry and wave the flag and never once mention WMD or Osama and openly ignore the 1,000-plus dead American soldiers in Iraq, and who then says, oh wait, gosh, that Dubya fellow, he sure is nice and simple and plain-faced and none-too-bright and he loves war like a schoolgirl loves bubblegum. He's my man. Now turn it to "Everybody Loves Raymond!"
Is it the elderly? Are they the ones who swing these polls so outrageously? Is it the over-75 set who just had their Medicare benefits gouged and who can't afford their medications due to how grossly BushCo just French-kissed all the CEOs of the major pharmcos? Doubtful. The elderly are far more astute that most.
Is it young women? Is it the roughly 22 million single females who didn't bother to cast a ballot in 2000, these least-likely voters in the nation who, if they had half of an idea of how much BushCo hated them and feared them and wanted to curtail every right they have to control their bodies and navigate their own sexuality, would shun BushCo this election like an altar boy shuns a Catholic priest? Do they keep changing their minds?
Is it the black vote? Doubtful. I know there are stories, like the recent Oakland Tribune piece, which discovered a number of black pastors in the East Bay who are actually supporting Bush solely on the basis of the gay marriage issue, despite the GOP's ill-concealed racist overtones and general hatred of minorities and the poor. The mind, it doth shudder and reel. And weep. But then again, another poll shows black voters favoring Kerry/Edwards by a huge, 8-1 majority. So there it is.
I know there are studies. I know there are analysts and pundits and social scientists who say they know about just who these "undecided" voters are, and why they flip so wildly, and why the hell they can't see the painful and enormous differences between Kerry and Dubya, if for no other reason than one can speak in complex multisyllabic sentences employing compound adjectives, whereas the other makes you feel like you're listening to a heavily Ritalined 5-year-old read "The Hungry Caterpillar," drunk.
I know there are superlative books, like Thomas Frank's "What's the Matter with Kansas?" -- books that attempt to explain why so many Americans vote, bafflingly, frustratingly, against their own self-interest. But this does little to explain such wild discrepancies in the polls, such weird and nearly instant fluctuations in the American attitude from week to week.
Of course the answer is: There is no real answer. To follow the polls is a fool's game best averted by deep sighing and copious amounts of wine and by ignoring them completely and by rejecting as specious and pointless nearly all stories that bring up poll numbers in hysterical and alarmist tones. Which is, you know, most all of them.
Except, of course, for those polls that make some sort of sense. Every now and then there seems to be one that has basis in actual reality, that doesn't deal in the mythical and God-like "undecideds," that make you go, well sure, this much is a given.
For example, take the new poll that shows how a huge percentage of the world, fully 30 out of 35 surveyed nations, want Bush out of the White House. Now.
It's true. Among America's strongest and most loyal allies and even among those who don't like us much and have good reason to believe we're a screaming whiny violent brat with too much money and too many toys and far too little soul, it is nearly unanimous: Bush has done more harm to the world, to international relations than any U.S. president in history. The world doesn't merely think Bush is an incompetent boob. They think he's a hostile and reckless incompetent boob. Which is, of course, far worse.
But then again, you don't really need a poll to tell you that.
©2004 SF Gate