Machine Design, Editorial Comment
October 19, 2000

Just kidding! But seriously, there is room for a lot of improvement in our political process. Perhaps its biggest fault is the cynicism it breeds in politicians and their advisors.

An illuminating article on this topic was published just before last November's election by Miles Benson of the Newhouse News Service. Mr. Benson explains in detail what politicians and their spin meisters think about voters, and the picture isn't pretty. In Mr. Benson's words, there seems to be a lot of truth in the notion that "candidates and their handlers treat voters like suckers." The prevailing opinion is that voters are easily manipulated, and this attitude is deeply ingrained in our political culture.

One political advisor admits he is always depressed by the low level of understanding of public affairs exhibited in focus groups. He says voters are amazingly tuned out. It isn't that voters are dumb, but they can be misled easily because they are so obsessed with selfish interests.

Candidates claim to share concerns with the electorate, but what they really do is use polls and focus groups to find out what people want and then promise to give it to them. The candidate's deeply held beliefs, if he has any, evidently play no role in the process.

On camera, every candidate proclaims great respect for the wisdom of voters. But off the record, politicians complain about the abysmal ignorance of the electorate. Political advisors say you can depend on voters to make decisions based on their own interests, but you can't trust them to analyze public policy and come up with reasonable conclusions.

Strategists tend to concentrate their efforts on swing voters, usually about 15% of the electorate, who right up until Election Day are not sure for whom they are going to vote. Campaign consultants consider them the least informed of all voters. This has done a lot to dumb down the political process. Those involved in campaigning admit they have trained voters to act irresponsibly. In the words of one consultant, "We make it easy for voters to have their prejudices measured and pandered to."

There are a lot of ways to manipulate public attitudes, and one of them is the so-called push poll. This is a survey designed not to measure public opinion but rather to influence the people being interviewed.

Another political consultant reveals a fundamental trick of the trade. At the end of a campaign, when a candidate is running TV ads, he has to look for a message that will motivate people. And what motivates them is fear. So he tries to come up with 30-second sound bites simple enough to arouse someone who is neither interested nor informed. If the candidate can't tell voters in eight words or less why he is the best choice, he is probably going to lose.

Today's conventional wisdom among politicians is that if you can fool some of the people all the time and all the people some of the time, that's usually enough to get elected. One political pollster says he would like to pass out Election Day bumper stickers that say, "I don't know anything, and I vote."

-- Ronald Khol, Editor