Pollster inspires little confidence in his work

By Minx McCloud

If you're like me, you pay a certain amount of attention to polls. I don't mean you live by them, but if a poll says that 80 percent of Americans are pro-choice on the abortion issue, you might draw certain conclusions.

We are bombarded by polls all the time -- I've gotten phone calls asking me about TV viewing habits, what kind of household products I use, and, most recently, what politicians I favor.

Now I'm not an educated voter, I'm ashamed to say. Those who read this column regularly know that although I vote in every election, I am totally clueless.

So, when it's time to vote, I rely somewhat on the polling results. I hate to sound like a sheep, but I have only so many moments left in my life, and none of them will be spent reading up on political races. In a pinch, I rely on my husband, because he is an educated voter.

I walked into my house the other day to hear the tail end of a phone call that had come through just before I got home. A very strange man was saying something insulting to my answering machine, which informs callers that I screen all my calls and if they want to talk to me, they have to tell me who they are, and "if I'm able to pick up the phone, I will."

I waited for him to disconnect and then played the message back.

You have a hundred people sitting in a room making phone calls, and maybe they're paid on the basis of their productivity. The huge number of answering machines must really cause them a problem.
He starts out with a short laugh, followed by the word "oh," and then something peculiar that I cannot understand. It sounds like "I'm bitterlasandra," which makes no sense at all. Then he says "yesssssssssss," in a long drawn out purr, like a carnival pitchman.

Amid the noise of a roomful of people conducting similar polls, he identifies himself as calling "on behalf of the Republican Party," and asks me who I favor -- Bret Schundler or Bob Franks.

Naturally, I am not there to answer, but amazingly, there is a pause and the clear sound of him typing my nonexistent answer. It's as if a supervisor is watching him and he's pretending I'm responding.

"On the issue of abortion, do you generally consider yourself to be pro-life or pro-choice," he asks next, and there is a pause and the sound of more typing.

Finally, he says, "Would you like to receive further information on the governor's race by e-maaaaiiiillll?" He trails off on the last word, and it's almost as if the supervisor walked away. His voice takes on a hard edge and he says, "Well, by now you know what the devil I'm talking about, so pick up your phone and quit being rude!" You can almost hear him gritting his teeth.

There is a long pause and I can hear the background noises. Then the call disconnects.

At first, I just regarded the call as another example of the rudeness that is running rampant in our society. It struck me as funny that my answering machine was really ticking this guy off. I played the tape for my husband, who was as shocked and amused as I was, and for anyone else who would listen.

I can be a little bit na´ve at times, so it wasn't until I played the tape for my editor that I realized its significance. There's a guy out there pretending to poll people, perhaps as many as 30 folks an hour, and if he's got his own agenda, he can simply type in his own answers, again and again and again.

And what if he's not the only one? (I am so sure he's not.) You have a hundred people sitting in a room making phone calls, and maybe they're paid on the basis of their productivity.

The huge number of answering machines must really cause them a problem. Add on the people that hang up as soon as they hear the nature of the call, and it might not be so easy to get polling results. How easy it is to pretend people are really answering their phones.

If done on a large scale, these phony results could actually sway an election. The only thing that evens out the playing field is that both parties are probably doing it.

Heck, everybody's probably doing it! Now at least I know why "Ally McBeal" is said to be one of the most popular shows on TV. The poll was probably conducted by a bunch of yuppie lawyers who like neurotic, anorexic women.

I still have the tape, so if anyone from the Republican Party cares to hear it, they're welcome. The caller was a very strange fellow with a distinctive way of talking and a habit of drawing out his words, so it probably wouldn't be too hard to find him. If they wanted to.

I'm playing the tape every day until the Republican primary, simply to remind myself of how completely corrupt the world of politics has become. Now someone will have to prove to me that this is not being done on a widespread basis, and I don't think they'll have an easy time of it.

By the way, I tried to do a star-69 to get the number the guy was calling from, but the service could not be activated because the call originated outside the service area. While it was reassuring to know that this snake does not live under a local rock, it was also frustrating.

I wanted to ask him how I feel about the abortion issue.

Minx McCloud is a free-lance journalist who writes about life in New Jersey. She can be reached at mccloudnj@aol.com. To see her most recent column, click here.

This article is copyright 2001 by Minx McCloud and appears here with permission.