Perhaps most disparaging description of the political uses of polling came from a former Canadian prime minister, John Diefenbacker, who once remarked that polls were of more use to dogs than they were to politicians.
When Diefenbacker made that remark some 30 years ago, it may have been true. Not anymore. As we enter the 21st century, polling has become to politicians what water is to fish - the key element of their environment.
But storms rage upon the normally calm waters of the world of polling. People are tired of having their dinner and family time interrupted to spend 20 minutes answering questions about which candidate has a better grip on fuzzy math. So more and more, they are refusing to take part in polls.
The result is a political polling scene that resembles a ship tossed from side to side. One day Gore is 11 points up in the CNN/USAToday/Gallup poll, three days later Bush is up by eight points.
Similar swings have taken place in other major polls. As John Farrell wrote in Sunday's Boston Globe, "In recent weeks, several well-known polls have reported questionable shifts in public opinion, leaving pollsters self-critical and defensive and prompting what GOP pollster Ed Goeas called 'The debate over polling.' "
But just as the polling industry faces the worst of its stormy voyage, help is on the horizon. It's the Internet to the rescue. Right now, this method is being pioneered by a company called Knowledge Networks (see full article Sept. 21) and CBS News.
Knowledge Networks has created a unique polling method. The company has created a "panel" of around 100,000 people (it hopes to make it 250,000 by next year). In return for doing polls and surveys from time to time, via e-mail, the company provides panel members with a special Microsoft WebTV box and pays all Internet access costs. (All information on members collected by the company is kept private and is not for sale.) The result is a response rate of 70 to 90 percent.
More important, the company has made sure people from different economic levels as well as those who have never used the Internet before take part. This eliminates the problem with ordinary Internet polling - only people with computer access can respond.
CBS News first used the Knowledge Networks polling for the State of the Union address in January. They also used it during the first two presidential debates. For the first debate, they contacted more than 900 panel members who were registered voters for a pre-debate poll, then asked them to log on at 10:30 the night of the debates to take part in a second poll. After the debate, 812 panelists responded within 15 minutes, and more than 700 of them had watched it.
CBS was able to give comprehensive poll results within half an hour, while other networks continued to use traditional methods which took most of the evening. But this method is so new that even CBS news anchor Dan Rather got it wrong, describing the Knowledge Network poll as another unscientific Internet poll.
CBS director of polling Kathy Frankovic told me that while CBS plans to continue doing traditional polling, it's happy with the Internet polling done by Knowledge Networks.
Ultimately, most polling will be done via the Internet with traditional polling methods becoming less important. And why not? It's a way to reach people quickly, in an unobtrusive manner, with impressive participation numbers.
It lessens the importance of making so many phone polls, which in turn will probably make people less reluctant to participate. After all, if pollsters phone you now and then, as opposed to all the time, you're more likely to view the call as worthwhile.
It's just one more way that the Internet is slowly changing the way we live, work, and vote in this country.
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society