The tortoise, the hare, and the relentless polling

By Joan Wickersham, The Boston Globe, March 29, 2024.

Once upon a time a hare was bragging about how fast he was. (According to a poll, 19 percent of respondents said they believed him entirely, 41 percent believed his statement contained some falsehoods, 23 percent believed him not at all, and 17 percent had no opinion.)

He jeered at a tortoise, calling him “slow’’ and “sleepy’’ and challenging him to a race. (A poll taken that same day showed that 41 percent believed the tortoise would win the race, 39 percent believed the hare would win. A further 20 percent were undecided.)

The tortoise and the hare had already raced several years before and the tortoise had won, but the hare had claimed that the race had been rigged and that he himself had actually won it. (A poll showed that 69 percent of the hare’s supporters continued to believe this claim even though it had been debunked repeatedly by the legal system.) (A subsequent poll showed that 19 percent of his supporters believed that the entire legal system was rigged.)

The media reported on the polls. They posted big charts and pointed at them with worried expressions. The pundits sat at long tables and round tables and spiritedly discussed the polls: What did the numbers tell us? What did the hare and the tortoise say about the numbers? Were the numbers causing them to change course or hit the reset button? How much should we trust the numbers? The numbers had been wrong before. But sometimes the numbers had been right. It wasn’t safe to trust the numbers. It wasn’t smart to ignore the numbers.

The numbers were all anybody talked about. The race was going to take a long time, but the numbers were coming out every day. The numbers were current events. They were news. Often when there was a banner across the screen saying “BREAKING NEWS,’’ the news was that there were new numbers. New panels of pundits were convened to discuss the new numbers.

In an attempt to get away from the numbers, reporters went out to talk to ordinary people. Nine of the people in the Midwestern purple-state diner on the cold morning took their coffee black; 16 took it with milk; 14 liked both milk and sugar; and three ordered tea. Eight strongly favored the tortoise to win; eight strongly favored the hare; and 26 were undecided.

The tortoise was plodding along. Every time he took a stumble or made a verbal gaffe, the polls asked if it was affecting his support. The polls started asking if the tortoise was too old for this kind of race. They asked if maybe the race would be better with a different tortoise. Nobody was doing much polling by this point about the possibility of a different hare, because earlier polls had shown that no matter what this hare did or had done, 72 percent of his supporters believed that he was The Hare, the one and only hare.

The hare called the tortoise names. The tortoise took the high road and ignored him and kept plodding ahead, rebuilding bridges and factories, creating new jobs, expanding benefits for veterans, addressing climate change. Polling showed that people viewed the high road as weak and wanted the tortoise to come out swinging against the hare. So the tortoise made some fiery speeches, which were met with a positive response of 64 percent in a flash poll, but only further polling could reveal how long any bounce might last.

According to the old fable, slow and steady wins the race; the whole point of the race is to test the character of the competitors and the depth of their preparation and knowledge. But that fable was written before there was polling. Now there is relentless polling to answer the jittery desire for daily news and also to offer reassurance that past failures to predict the results of earlier races would not have happened if only there had been more and better relentless polling.

When the race is over, the polling will continue, immediately and without a pause. What percentage of people believe or don’t believe the official results? Who will be racing four years from now? And if that future contest were to be held today, who do you believe would win?

Joan Wickersham is the author of “The Suicide Index’’ and “The News from Spain.’’ Her column appears regularly in the Globe.

 Image Credits: Globe Staff – Jim Hayes