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Posted at 11:48 AM ET, 11/24/2010

I miss telemarketers -- and, soon, land-line pollsters

By Alexandra Petri

I miss telemarketers.

Remember those? They were the butt of constant jokes from everyone from late-night comedians to your neighbor who liked to pretend that he'd expired in the night and was responding from the afterlife.

Since telemarketers, if someone calls your house, you can't scream, "Tell them NO, EZEKIEL!" into the receiver and then hang up, because that person is probably calling from your bank or the family of your fiance (or, for a few lucky people, both!). Instead, you have to actually talk to the person. The only time you can mess around is if someone calls with a political poll. "How do you feel about health care?" they ask. "I'm lonely," you say. "I haven't been outdoors since they defeated McGovern. Could you describe what the world looks like now?" Later, this will be recorded as "Other" or "Strongly In Favor," depending upon the pollster.

But that might change soon, too. In the aftermath of miles of polls, it's becoming increasingly evident that the landscape has changed for political pollsters. No longer can they rely on landlines to supply their data. According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, 24 percent of U.S. households have jettisoned their traditional house phones in favor of cell phones. Finally! And forget about phone cords. Those were useless to the point of being physically harmful, only there to keep you from moving about, for your infants to ingest, or for lonely women to be garroted with.

Now, a report by the Pew Research Center (which sounds like the people who ultimately determine Who Dealt It) found that polls that relied solely on landlines tended to be off by around 5 percent, in favor of Republicans.

Remember 1936? I don't, but I know a guy who does. Everyone assumed that the Literary Digest poll would accurately predict the outcome of the race between Roosevelt and Alf Landon -- and look how wrong they were!

Someone once defined a serum as a substance that, when injected into a guinea pig, produces a scientific paper. Polls are similar -- inject enough questions into the ears of unsuspecting listeners, and you're bound to produce a theory or two. It's like being a telemarketer, except you feel as though you're actively conveying a boon to society instead of making people want to commit ritual seppuku during the dinner hour. "This isn't about refinancing your home!" you shout. "I'm conducting a poll."

This last election cycle -- which sounds like the worst brand of bike ever, the kind that you get excited about and then you try to ride it and it doesn't go anywhere -- dozens of polls emerged on topics that range from "Generic Ballots" to which branches of government we trust to whether we view President Obama very unfavorably, or just a little unfavorably. But in light of the Pew Center's report, you have to wonder.

True, some of the polling services are already taking the gap into account. But it's the end of an era. Now, TSA patdown jokes and My-Mom's-On-Facebook jokes are stepping up to take the place of complaints about telemarketers and calling pollsters. But that's the way of the new world. You aren't revered and honored as an elder -- you're just obsolete. Instead pausing to honor the passing of the pollster buck, let's try to drive it into the ground.

The next time someone calls your land line (if you still have a land line) try to encourage him to discard this method of fact-finding. Insist that you are 300 years old and think the phone is a malfunctioning victrola. Make noises as though you are firing at it with a low-gauge shotgun. If anyone asks a real question, shout, "I voted for Roosevelt." Then add, in a conspiratorial whisper, "I am Roosevelt."

By Alexandra Petri  | November 24, 2010; 11:48 AM ET
Categories:  Bad Advice, Petri  | Tags:  losers, phone calls  
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Great column, as usual Ms. P.

That “TELL THEM NO, EZEKIAL” link is a hoot. Here’s my favorite:

Jerry Seinfeld made this one famous....
"I'm sorry but I'm really busy right now. Why don't you give me YOUR HOME number and I'll call you back later tonight... say midnight... Hello?"

And that Pew Research Center poll (to determine who dealt it) made me laugh even harder than your colonoscopy column. I suspect that my church hired them, since they now make me sit in my own pew.

The 1936 Literary Digest poll you mentioned predicted that Roosevelt would only get 43% to Landon’s 57%. But Roosevelt actually won in a landslide with 62% of the vote. The main reason the poll was so wrong was that it relied on voluntary responses, and people who were against President Roosevelt were much more likely to respond.

Perhaps there is a lesson for those who claim to represent the will of the “American People” based on the results of a mid-term election where only 40% of eligible voters actually voted.

And if the Democrats are to have a chance in 2012, maybe they need to run against a Republican candidate who people hate enough for them to get off their duffs and vote (Sarah, we need you).

Finally, if our leaders REALLY want to know what the “American People” say, they need to hire the Pew Research Center to find out… and to make us answer ALL their damn questions whether EZEKIAL wants us to or not!

Posted by: divtune | November 24, 2010 2:22 PM | Report abuse

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