Acton Institute Powerblog

Who’s Polling Whom?

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Last night I got a phone call from a polling organization that wanted to ask me some questions about local “upcoming elections and issues.” I listened to the introductory remarks politely but soon found myself persuaded to ask a question.

“Where are you calling from?”

If you don’t have call blocker, or an answering machine and still pick up your phone from time to time, you likely have listened to “Tina” or “Amy” from a remote area of Bombay or a Manila suburb try to sell you a re-financing deal or a scheme to eliminate your credit card balance. I can’t help but engage these callers and usually, indiscriminately ask them from where they’re calling.

“South Dakota,” the young male voice answered.

Hmmmm, I wondered. “How long have you been working for this company?”

“Two months,” he replied.

“Well, I can barely understand you, so please speak clearly.”

We agreed to continue and I was told it would take 13 minutes. The questions were all over the place, and it became clear that the young man was unfamiliar with how to pronounce some of the names of persons, places and things he was asking me about. Do you “support; very strongly, strongly, not very strongly, not at all.” It went well enough until he got to a question that required him to say the word incumbent. He fumbled it a couple of times but I was able to understand what he was trying to pronounce so I interrupted.

“In-cum-bent,” I said slowly. Then I asked him if he knew what the word meant.

“No, I’m sorry, I don’t,” he replied shyly.

“How old are you?” I asked.

“Eighteen,” he replied.

“Are you in high school?” I asked.

“I’m a freshman in college,” he replied boldly.

I told him to listen carefully and took the next minute to define what an incumbent was and relate the word to the work he was doing in polling potential voters as to questions of whom they would support or vote for in the upcoming elections. I added that at eighteen years of age he was likely to be an eligible voter and knowing what the word incumbent meant seemed to me a minimal necessity of his civic duty. I also told him to take the script home and practice reading it more smoothly, and finding out what words like incumbent meant.

I told him to improve his skills and maybe he could be advanced at the little company he was working for. It was good advice.

But I wondered as I hung up the phone, as you may be wondering now. How many 18 year olds like this voted in November 2008.

Ken Larson Ken Larson is a businessman and writer who with his wife recently moved from their native state California to a semi-rural part of Virginia, near the Chesapeake Bay. A graduate of California State University with a major in English, his eclectic career includes editing the first "reloading manual" for Sierra Bullets [something that earns him major league credibility when picking crabs with new friends on Sunday afternoons] and authoring a novel about a family's school choice decisions titled ReEnchantment, A Schoolboy's Adventure. His web site is For ten years, Ken was the only Protestant on The Consultative School Board for the Roman Catholic Diocese of Orange near Los Angeles and chaired their inaugural Catholic Conference on Business and Ethics in support of needy parish schools in the diocese. He continues to be active in his new community and mindful of America's civic education malaise.


  • Ken,

    It sounds as if your advice was given in a courteous and charitable manner. At least the young man was working, no doubt for minimum wage and perhaps while he was attending college is virtuous.. The fact that he seemed to take your counsel is hopeful.

  • Chris


    As someone who routinely teaches high school students in our local church on issues ranging from theology to economics, I am continually dismayed by the sheer dearth of intellectual capital coming from the 15-23 age group. Do not get me wrong, I am only 29 myself, but I am appalled that so many either cannot understand basic terminology or use it in a properly contextualized sentence.

    Thanks for taking the time to guide this young man. He will be thankful a decade from now.

  • Patrick Powers

    Yes, it’s a shame that our young people remain in a fictional, virtual reality. A modest change to minimum wage and child-labor laws would alleviate some of that.
    I am tempted to concur with Boston College’s Dr. Peter Kreeft’s observation that the next St. Paul is probably a Moslem youth today.

  • Nathan Barton

    Being a South Dakotan myself, I too doubt this young man was working in-state for one of the few public-opinion/polling companies (which we do have). Although I deplore SD public schools (PS-K-12-HE), they are superior to that of most of the rest of the Union, and with our recent political history in the state, “in-cum-bent” is going to be in most 18-year-old’s vocabulary, especially if hired for this kind of job and not just working in BK or at a c-store. (Although SD does enjoy one of the three lowest unemployment rates of the Fifty.) Of course, he MIGHT be an enrolled member of one of the ten tribes in the state, which might explain both his accent and his lack of knowledge – BIA-supported schools, even if locally operated, are quite variable in product. I can tell you that almost certainly you did not talk to one of our home-/cyber-/privately-schooled high school graduates here in-state. My own 18-year-old son would not and could not hold a job like that one (poll taker) because his own political opinions and knowledge are far too divergent from the norm and he tends to be very intolerant of a lack of intellectual rigor, whether in a text, a teacher, a cyber-classmate, or a convention or caucus delegate. He didn’t vote in ’08 – he is just 18 now – but his vote in ’10 and ’12 will be highly informed and carefully thought out – and very likely will consist of a lot of “None of the Above” – he has a low tolerance for stupidity in candidates, also.

  • Nathan: It was clear to me that the call was from South Dakota. And if you go to you’ll discover that a general failing in education characterizes the entire nation. To take away your doubt on that other matter, I asked specifically whether he was a member of a tribe to which there was a negative response. And he didn’t have an accent, he just mumbled. Please try to persuade your son to be more tolerant of those lacking intellectual rigor; otherwise he may find life very lonely. Peace!