Election day is nearly a year away and I’m already sick of opinion polls. They’re everywhere, all the time. If they’re not headlining network news, they’re scrolling on the crawler below. Every notable news blog seems to be working its requisite political-analyst-turned-poll interpreter overtime to come up with a profound conclusion about why public opinion jerked up or down an itty-bitty bit. As Stephen Colbert would say, USA Today looks more like a Denny’s placemat than ever as it stretches its artistic limits to create exciting new ways to lay out poll results; its pretty-colored pie chart creativity stopping short of going three-dimensional.

And while most polls keep it simple by measuring fluctuations in actual electoral behavior, others are getting innovative and pushing the limits of public fatuity by bizarrely linking things like zodiac signs to voting behavior. Apparently Virgos are backing Obama this year. All things considered, predicting voter behavior is a burgeoning industry. And, while I find some solace in knowing that I’m creating jobs in this elusive industry simply by existing, I can’t help but wonder what the whole point of it is.

It makes sense for candidates and private companies to commission opinion surveys in order to make campaigns more efficient, but I’m a little hazy about why poll after poll is making headlines. It could be lazy reporting; it’s easy to cover a story about a survey result. Then there’s the idea that this is important information that needs to be diffused. But today’s extensive poll coverage has arguably hurt election coverage by making it a horse race focused on numbers rather than issues. Or perhaps these polls are treated as vital information because we, the populace, flock to newsstands and turn up the volume when we hear there’s a new poll out. I’m going to go out on a limb and say that that’s probably not it.

So that leaves us with the argument that the increasingly powerful (and thus increasingly suspect) news corporations have a political agenda. They must therefore make it a point to trumpet survey results that reveal that what the company wants is what the people want – according to polls. And, in giving Britney Spears-worthy prominence to favorable poll results, one could posit that these establishments are trying to affect our opinion.

Thus, it’s important that we consider the impact that popular opinion may have on us. Being the youngest and least-experienced brood of voters, theory alleges that we are perhaps the most tractable voting class, the most vulnerable to the influence of what other people think. Being exposed to the looming wave of popular opinion can have two effects: It can peer pressure us into voting with the pack, and it can make us feel as though we might as well make our vote count by betting on the winning mammal – be it donkey or elephant. Although we may not like to admit it, these pressures are unavoidable human vices that can affect everyone, even us – the headstrong youth of the “me” generation.

With popular opinion constantly thrown in our faces, it is getting tougher to fight the little voice, or the many voices as the case may be, that argue that Candidate X is “not gonna win anyways.” We all have an inherent desire to want our vote to count, and so we can be swayed in favor of the one the polls show actually has a shot. Evidence of the impact that this mentality has had on this season’s votes so far can be found in the rhetoric of those who vote for Hillary, proclaiming that Obama is “unelectable,” as a young, debatably inexperienced, progressive, black man. Or in those who reason that McCain is too decrepit to take it all the way or Huckabee thumps his Bible a little too hard to be legitimate. These aren’t viable reasons to swing one way or the other. We must choose our candidate based on issues rather than electability, whatever that is.

On the other hand, peer pressure can push even the strongest into the pit of poor decisions. Bill Keller, executive editor of The New York Times, basically apologized publicly to Americans for his part in fatefully allowing his paper to half-ass its investigative coverage of the administration in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks and into the war in Iraq. His decisions after he took over in 2003 accommodated the administration’s unfounded headlong dive into the now controversial and indisputably devastating war against terrorism without apparent hitch or hesitation. We are all susceptible to the bandwagon. After all, being one in a crowd can stave off embarrassment, reassure those who waiver and, let’s be honest, the majority is often right.

We are a young, intelligent, effective class of voters. But, in an era when public approval is evermore paramount, we must be brave, bold, discerning and steadfast in our convictions in order to stand up for our choices and realize our power.

– Ashlea Surles can be reached at ajsurles@umich.edu.

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