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The Only Poll That Counts …

For anyone unfortunate enough to live in one of the "battleground" states or "hotly contested" congressional districts, Tuesday's elections probably can't come soon enough. Being a resident of Virginia, and part of the Washington media market, I've seen so many ads for George Allen, Jim Webb, Ben Cardin and Michael Steele that I've come to really appreciate the creative genius of the Budweiser frogs. Alas, the ad blitzes we're subjected two every two years are a permanent part of our democratic fabric and still the primary tool by which campaigns sell themselves to the electorate.

As distasteful and pervasive as they are, we can't really just ban political ads anymore than we can get rid of the Geico "Caveman" commercials (amusing yes, but only the first twenty times you see them). There is another annoying element of campaigns, however, that we could do something about – polls. More to the point, our obsession with the daily ups-and-downs of the horse race polls.

Public opinion polling, like Election Day exit polls, have an important role in our understanding of the nation's political pulse. What issues do Americans care about, what are their positions on the great questions of the day, which courses of actions do we favor? A real examination of these things can enlighten our understanding and help us understand where we're headed. But, just as exit polls have been touted as early indicators of winners and losers (more on that issue to come) on Election Day, our pre-election polls are used like Las Vegas betting lines.

We all have an innate interest in looking into the crystal balls of polls to try and see the future outcomes of our elections. But doesn't our fixation on daily movement take the focus off of the substance of campaigns and rob us of a little mystery heading into the big day? We're not going to get rid of polls, just like we aren't going to be seeing less political ads on television. But wouldn't it be nice to have a moratorium on horse-race polls in the media for, let's say a month, before the election?

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Sure, it wouldn't make the New York senate race any more compelling but think about the real suspense you could build for some other less-than-razor-thin races. Instead of going into Election Day focused on six or seven senate seats that appear competitive, we may have ten to twelve we're just not sure about. In a presidential election, the suspense would be even higher. Taking even a little predictability out of elections may even increase interest and participation in them and help convince people that every vote truly does count. If voters felt less certain about the terrain, they just may be more apt to be engaged.

Of course it will never happen. We're far too addicted to polls. What else would we have to talk about during this mid-term if not the predicted Democratic "tide" that experts tell us is heading our way? How could we prepare our "narratives" and position our reporters in important places? What would we lead our broadcasts with and run on our front-pages? I'm a political junkie and thrive on the daily poll fix like everyone else so this in no holier-than-thou observation. But sometimes I do long for some more unpredictability, some unexpected surprises and, more than anything, a more true expression of the people's will. That said, has anyone seen the latest numbers in Tennessee?

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