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Are There Holes in the Polls?

By James L. Hirsen, J.D., Ph.D.

The various opinion polls are yielding some particularly troubling numbers lately. Friends, foes and everyday onlookers of the presidency are vigorously discussing their thoughts and feelings concerning the Clinton sex scandal, and there seems to be no shortage of opinions. Yet the polls appear to indicate that the public at large hold quite conflicting and puzzling notions about the entire matter.

Although a majority of Americans believe President Clinton had a sexual affair with a White House intern, his job approval ratings are at an all time high. Moreover, the polls show that most people in our country would not require this particular President to resign over his behavior. However, the polls also indicate that if the President actually lied about having the affair, he should resign after all.

When it comes to evaluating President Clinton on a personal basis, a survey about presidential ethical standards last year found him to have only slightly higher marks than Richard Nixon. Clinton's personal numbers have not risen with his high job approval ratings.

In addition, the polls reflect that overwhelming numbers of Americans think that the Lewinsky story is getting far too much coverage. People say that they want more news about the U.S. standoff with Iraq. Nevertheless, the very public who is complaining about saturation coverage is at the same time devouring every tidbit of information as fast as possible.

During the scandal's peak, the major cable news networks doubled their usual ratings. Sunday public affairs programs such as "Fox News Sunday" have scored their largest audiences in history. National news periodicals have had record increases in circulation. Are these occurrences really representative of the opinions of the same American people? The contradiction in numbers has pundits searching for logical explanations.

Some of the apparent inconsistencies may be the result of the abrupt intrusion that this story has had upon all of our lives. Public opinion is still in the process of germinating. Many individuals have not had the time to think things through to a satisfactory conclusion.

Pollsters acknowledge that when sampling a population an anomaly often occurs which may offer some insight into analyzing inconsistencies in surveys. Sometimes if people are not sure what to think, they are tempted to respond with what they believe they should be thinking. Obviously in the end this can distort the results significantly.

Maybe this phenomenon should be called "opinion poll correctness." Most people are hesitant to confess that they do indeed slow down to look at a gruesome automobile accident on the highway. Conceivably the public does not want to admit that they possess such tendencies.

In another revealing example, hardly anyone watches professional wrestling according to the polls. Yet professional wrestling rivals other mainstream sports in the revenue it generates for live and pay-per-view events.

Similarly if surveys are to be believed, the pornography business should be a tiny and inconsequential fringe industry. The reality is quite the opposite. The purveyors of obscenity have larger operations than the legitimate entertainment industry, and revenues from these enterprises are estimated at over eight billion dollars.

People still hold great affection for the office of the presidency, and they believe it is a symbol of stability for the country. Very few genuinely desire to see a presidency fall. Most are clinging to wishful thinking, hoping that the allegations are false for the sake of the nation if not for the presidency itself.

Only time will tell the real meaning behind the revelations in the polls. Meanwhile we must pray that the numbers do not reflect what many fear most-that the remnant of moral bedrock in the United States, the same foundation that sustains civilization, has eroded so completely that only an empty chasm remains.

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James L. Hirsen, J.D., Ph.D.
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