Under our current system of government, which will be known to history as a "lottery democracy," a small but statistically significant number of people are randomly selected from the general population to pronounce judgment on such important issues as who should be our president, whether our politicians should be "tough" or "weak" on crime, and whether it's better to fund our government with a lotto game or with casino gambling. The most important numbers in Florida this fall, after all, were not how many votes were cast for Albert Gore Jr. of Tennessee or George W. Bush of Texas, but what percentage of 1,039 scientifically sampled Americans thought that Gore was a "sore loser" or that Bush was "trying to steal the election."
I am proud of my unfounded opinions, and I enjoy multiple-choice questions, but I had always felt a sort of playground loneliness about never being called to give my say. When a stranger who had trouble pronouncing my name called my Greenwood home on Wednesday, May 23, I got ready to hang up on the apparent telemarketer, but when he said that he wanted to ask me some questions about the mayor's race in Seattle, I immediately changed my tone and marveled at my good fortune in finally being asked to participate in an important election.
Apparently, the Schell job had been contracted to a market-research company from Appalachia, because my personal representative was a dead ringer--on the phone at least--for "Kentucky Joe" of the Survivor television show: full of cracker-barrel commentary on my preferences and an appealing carelessness about the scientific process in which he was a vital link.
Unlike more nervous and/or eager members of the vast army of the unemployed who fill these temporary political phone jobs, Kentucky Joe didn't appear to give a damn about what a supervisor monitoring the call might think. He suggested answers when I wavered; he told me I was crazy for supporting what he thought of as giant tax boondoggles; and by the end of the poll he was saying, "I thought you'd say that," whenever I said something bad about mayoral candidate and City Attorney Mark Sidran. We had a lovely time.
We had plenty of opportunity to get to know each other, since the poll went into exhaustive detail about my opinions of four possible mayoral candidates: Schell, Sidran, King County Council Member Greg Nickels, and Seattle City Council Member Jan Drago. For all of the candidates, Kentucky Joe wanted to know what I thought about countless tiny facets of their personalities and experience. Was it "very true," "somewhat true," "somewhat untrue," or "not true" that Jan Drago was a "good leader"? That Greg Nickels was "arrogant"? That Paul Schell was "tough on crime"? That Mark Sidran was "weak"? I answered each question with a gleeful exactitude that bore no relation to my actual knowledge about the subject. At first I guessed the poll had been commissioned by Drago to feel out whether she should join the three announced candidates (and I did my best with the answers to dissuade her).
As the questions continued, though, it became clear that this one was going on Schell's tab. After spending most of the survey asking identical questions about each candidate, Kentucky Joe shifted gears and revealed his employers' true interests. He closed with a series of statements for me to "agree" or "disagree" with. "Tell me," he read, "whether these are good reasons to vote for Paul Schell," and he gave a lengthy, glowing list of what Schell must consider his first-term accomplishments: libraries, neighborhoods, and transportation "initiatives."
With Schell's foes, though, Kentucky Joe really got to the point. "Now here are some reasons to vote against Greg Nickels," he read. "Do you agree or disagree?" Nickels, I was told, had screwed up light rail, and, much worse, was not up to the "complexities" of the mayor's job because he had never graduated from college. Sidran, meanwhile, "doesn't want to help homeless people; he wants to lock them up." (Well, I knew that already.) Usually I think of push-polling (like Bush's South Carolina smear campaign against John McCain) as taking place right before an election, when politicians are less interested in hearing what you think than in planting some last-minute messages in your voting-booth brain. But clearly, Mayor Schell and his campaign staff have some ideas ("Greg Nickels--a dumb dropout?") they'd like me to keep in mind all summer long.