I am not the first to say this (I believe Habermas critiqued opinion polls in Theory of Communicative Action, though I bet he didn’t use the Foucauldian language I’m about to), but I live in what is now considered a “purple” state, which means my vote might actually matter, and so I am inundated with opinion polls. So allow me my few minutes of ranting here. Don’t get me wrong: I am very happy to learn that the RCP polling average as of this moment has Trump down 1.7 points in North Carolina, and down 5 points nationally, with almost no path through the electoral college. It helps me sleep at night, though whatever faith in humanity those polling numbers restore is quickly erased by the sadness that anyone could vote for someone so openly racist.
I don’t mind being phoned and asked who I’d vote for if the election were held today. What is more interesting and disturbing happens when the polls try to get at issues. It’s also an excellent example of the creation of a “population,” in the sense Foucault uses the term when he talks about biopolitics. Today was the second time I’ve been polled by an outfit that clearly only works for Republicans – in both cases, I was presented with a list of things the candidates have done, and I was asked if I was more or less likely to vote for them on that basis. The Republicans were presented as having done only things that they clearly thought I would say were good, and the Democrats were mainly associated with higher taxes and alleged scandals. So that’s the first point: the poll often tries to push the voter in one direction or another, to create the reality it is ostensibly researching.
The more interesting point is the one about constructing a population, which it does extracting a series of “issues” and presenting them as a disconnected set of questions, with no attention to their context or how they might interconnect.