Thursday, April 5, 2012

Push-Polling 101: Americans Elect's Platform of Questions Answer Themselves (So You Don't Have To)

Like the old joke about Unitarians burning a question mark in your front yard, Americans Elect has plenty of questions, but no answers. Or does it?

Americans Elect Corporation, the Wall Street ruse and brainchild of billionaire Peter Ackerman, has just published its Platform of Questions, Version 1 (never quite confident it has its spin perfectly tuned for gullible ears yet, AECorp is big on issuing multiple versions of all of its Official Documents). Puzzlingly, this document, dated January 1, 2012, only today (April 5th) made its debut on the corporate web site. AECorp is nothing if not methodical.

Where old-fashioned political parties have platforms of answers – statements of what they stand for and how they are committed to work to solve the nation’s problems – Americans Elect Corporation takes pride in offering only questions, like a gaggle of lapsed Unitarians. Every AECorp candidate who seeks to become the corporation’s nominee for President must answer each of the questions in its Platform both in writing and on YouTube (perhaps because we want to make sure our candidate has good teeth, or maybe out of fear that the youthful demographic which AECorp targets can’t actually read). AECorp claims that this 15-question Platform distills the more than 10,000 questions submitted to its web site’s mis-named ‘Debates’ section by AECorp’s mis-named ‘members’, although our ongoing monitoring of ‘Debates’ suggests there is little or no correspondence between the most frequently submitted questions and those which appear in the Platform. Somebody, perhaps AECorp’s pundit-in-residence, Douglas Schoen, just made this stuff up.

What’s really interesting about the Platform of Questions is how most of them are crafted to answer themselves – what serious public opinion researchers frequently deride as ‘push-polling’ (the classic example being “Have you stopped beating your wife yet?”). Take a look:

Platform Question #1: “WHAT DO YOU THINK are the most important steps government can take to promote job creation?”

Our Comment: A reasonable question, and a good start. Push-polling works best if you ease your audience into it, like the proverbial frog in the frying pan. You can’t just start out asking loaded questions. We do wonder, however, why is AECorp  shouting? WE CAN READ lower-case letters, too.

Platform Question #2: “HOW WOULD YOU reform federal taxes?”

Our Comment: Note the implicit assumption that federal taxes must be reformed, as every idiot knows; we’re not even going to ask you whether you think they should be or not. A push-polling classic. Start with the answer you want to hear, not the question. Americans Elect’s Wall Street billionaire insiders want tax 'reform', dammit! And that means cutting the capital gains tax!

Platform Question #3: “DO YOU BELIEVE corporations should be more heavily regulated, even if it means higher compliance costs?”

Our Comment: Note the smart choice of the phrase “more heavily regulated.” Not “more thoughtfully.” Not “more effectively.” Perish the thought, for those alternatives suggest positives (thoughtfulness, effectiveness). No no. More heavily. That’s the ticket. It presumes that corporations are already heavily regulated (the implication being that they are too heavily regulated). Americans Elect’s titans-of-industry insiders want government off their corporate backs, con-sarn it! And note the dig about “higher compliance costs.” Because, you know, we all lay awake at night worrying about Peter Ackerman’s skyrocketing compliance costs.

Platform Question #4: “HOW DO YOU PROPOSE we reduce the national debt, and how much should the national debt be considered in economic recovery plans?”

Our Comment: Almost right, but not quite It overlooks the vibrant debate among leading economists regarding whether, in fact, the national debt needs to be actively reduced or whether, instead, it can be allowed to take care of itself as it has in the past, through the combined beneficial effects of economic growth (which pays the bills) and normal inflation (which makes today’s debts smaller tomorrow). Americans Elect’s insiders don’t want their candidates getting all professor-y on them; they just want ‘em to cut the damn budget.

Platform Question #5: “WHAT ROLE should the federal government play in the healthcare industry? Is healthcare a right?”

Our Comment: OK, you got us, Peter. This might actually be a good question. You’re 2-for-5.

Platform Question #6: “WHAT DO YOU THINK is driving the rapid growth of health care costs, and how would you slow it down? Would you support putting some kind of cap on what the government spends on Medicare?”

Our Comment: Excellent push-polling. The set-up scares you with the specter of rapidly growing health care costs. Then AE’s insiders move in for the kill with the only answer they want: cut Medicare. Ask yourself this: if the second sentence had read instead “...some kind of cap on what the government spends on Veterans Administration hospitals” wouldn’t you have asked yourself “What the hell?”

Platform Question #7: “SHOULD THE GOVERNMENT require that all citizens have healthcare insurance? If so, what is your thought about a premium support model similar to the Federal Employees Health Benefits Program?”

Our Comment: See comment on question #6. Scare ‘em with “government require...,” then move in for the kill with the only one of many possible answers you will allow the candidates to discuss. Well played, sir.

Platform Question #8: “WHY AREN’T OUR K-12 schools preparing graduates to compete in the global economy, and what would you do as president to lift their performance?”

Our Comment: Begin with the assertion you wish to drive home: that our K-12 schools are not preparing graduates to compete in the global economy (despite the fact that the U.S. is the largest and most competitive economy on the globe...we’re pretty sure that’s just a fluke).

Platform Question #9: “WHY DO YOU THINK college costs keep rising? Are students getting their money’s worth, and what would you do to slow down cost growth?”

Our Comment: A fairly reasonable question; Peter is thus now 3-for-9. Except we’re pretty sure that Ackerman couldn’t give a rat’s ass about college costs (as long-time Chairman of the Board of Overseers at Tufts University’s Fletcher School we didn't notice him doing much to reduce tuition there). Perhaps this one is just a sop to that all-important youth vote he so desperately wants to co-opt.

Platform Question #10: “WHAT WOULD YOU DO to improve workforce development and job training opportunities for U.S. workers?”

Our Comment: The same old same-old; an assertion disguised as a question: government has been slacking off on improving workforce development and job training. You’re not unemployed because of job cremators like Peter Ackerman. You’re unemployed because of the evil old regime!

Platform Question #11: “Is U.S. energy Independence a feasible goal and, if so, how would you achieve it? How would you reduce our reliance on foreign oil?

Our Comment: Softball energy question number one. We’re pretty sure the answers will all mention either Mom or apple pie, or both. Never mind that every President since Nixon has had a ‘plan’ to achieve energy independence. What’s yours?

Platform Question #12: “What steps will you take to make this nation’s growing energy demand more sustainable?”

Our Comment: This would be a swell question if its premise was correct...but it’s not. Since 2000, annual per-capita energy consumption in the U.S. has been declining, not growing. But AECorp’s insiders are busy guys; don’t try to distract them with facts.

Platform Question #13: “How important is reducing carbon emissions, and how would you go about it? In addition to renewable fuels, do you believe natural gas and nuclear energy should play a larger role in America’s energy mix?”

Our Comment: Now we begin to discern the reason for the preceding two softball energy questions: they were setting us up for the kill here. “Yada-yada-yada NATURAL GAS AND NUCLEAR ENERGY yada-yada-yada.” On TV this is called “product placement.” If this question had not been brought to you by AECorp’s sponsors it might have read “Which, if any, non-renewable energy sources do you believe should play a larger role in American’s energy mix?”

Platform Question #14: “WHAT CIRCUMSTANCES justify U.S. military intervention? Do you think America should continue to play a leading role in world affairs, or lay down some of those responsibilities?”

Our Comment: Extra points for subtlety here. Note the odd, yet oddly evocative, phrase “lay down,” suggesting ‘weakness’, ‘exhaustion’, ‘going to sleep’, and maybe even ‘getting screwed’.  We’re just betting candidates will be lining up to support America sleeping on the job in world affairs.

Platform Question #15: “IS AMERICA’S enormous trade deficit with China a problem? How would you boost U.S. exports and encourage China and other countries to buy more from us?

Our Comment: Another nice use of a completely unnecessary emotion-packed word, which a balanced question would have avoided. “Dad, do you think the ENORMOUS difference between Jimmy’s allowance and mine is fair?” Gosh, I wonder what the right answer is here. But the real kicker is the built-in assumption that our next President must encourage other countries to buy more from us, instead of, say, us actually making stuff that the world might want to buy. Buy more iPads, China! Oh, wait a minute....

AND SO, because push-polling questions come with their own individually-wrapped handy built-in answers, we can now discern The Americans Elect Corporation Platform Of Answers, namely:

1. CUT PETER ACKERMAN’S TAXES! Because a billion dollars doesn’t go nearly as far these days as it used to.

2. STOP REGULATING CORPORATIONS! After all, everybody knows that the Great Recession was the Fed’s fault in the first place.

3. CUT THE FEDERAL BUDGET! And while you’re at it, lowering the capital gains tax would be nice, too.

4. CUT MEDICARE! If Granny doesn’t like sleeping in the street let her go back where she came from.

5. DON’T SCREW WITH THE HEALTH INSURANCE INDUSTRY! This message has been brought to you by Americans Elect’s fine sponsors, including your local neighborhood HMO.

6. SCHOOL VOUCHERS FOR ALL! Because we’re sick of the hotbeds of Islamic radicalism Obama has turned the public schools into.

7. GET GOVERNMENT OFF THE BACKS OF US JOB CREMATORS! Teach these kids how to flip a damn burger right, for God’s sake.


9. NUKE IRAN! Or, at least, sell ‘em more nuclear power plants.

10. FORCE CHINA TO STOP PIRATING DISNEY DVDs! Back at ya, Michael Eisner!

Extra points for observant readers who noticed that nearly every AECorp question either explicitly or implicitly deals with money. Concerned about personal freedom? Marriage equality? Extraordinary rendition? The environment? Gun ownership? Infrastructure? Government reform? The elderly? The young? Workers' rights? Transportation policy? Urban development? Immigration? Science and technology? Foreign policy? Terrorism? The war in Afghanistan? Innovation? Then go start your own damn party. We're only in it for the money.
Americans Elect Corporation: Pick a Panderer, not a President!

1 comment:

  1. Thank you for saving me the time to provide a detailed critique of the structure of the questions.

    Politically speaking, our society has become conditioned to accept the use of problem definitions that assume the answers. We no longer "question the questions" as we should.

    While it may be politically expedient for candidates to pretend that the solutions to our Nation's problems can be addressed by "Yes/No" or simplistic "multiple choice" alternatives (since it obviates the need for thoughtful consideration), the reality is that the challenges we face require a far more in-depth assessment.

    Beyond that, this traditional approach to framing issues does little to expose a candidate's intellectual process (i.e., how the candidate prioritizes the issues; how the candidate approaches problem definition, root cause identification, alternative analysis, solution selection and implementation; etc.). It also fails to provide insight into one's leadership ability (i.e., the ability to build consensus and inspire others to achieve their highest potential in order to maximize performance). Instead, we remain mired in the tradition of framing our political discussions in a "True/False" "We/They" manner.

    I have made a prior commitment to answer the questions and provide the videos required by Americans Elect, and I will honor my commitment. Consider that to be my way of subliminally demonstrating a leadership characteristic that I consider to be important.

    In the interim, I hope that Americans Elect will revisit its rules and amend them to create a level playing field among the candidates and to provide the necessary time for candidates to overcome some of the technical issues Americans Elect has suffered with respect to its delegate verification process. Pragmatically, that would enhance Americans Elect's credibility and relevance, and it would serve as an appropriate test of the organization's character.


Join the debate. What's your take on this?