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Jewish World Review Oct. 24, 2000 / 25 Tishrei, 5761

Amity Shlaes

Amity Shlaes
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The most accurate poll -- GALLUP, ROPER, AND WRC CORPORATION. Never heard of that last polling group? That's too bad, since the firm's polls have picked the victor right 10 out of 11 times in past presidential elections. This despite the fact that WRC pollees were quizzed in spring or October, well before the election.

The only time WRC has been wrong was in 1968 when the early choice was Robert Kennedy who was later assassinated.

All the more interesting then to learn that the "voters" in this poll are schoolchildren. Stamford, Connecticut-based WRC is best known in the US as publisher of the Weekly Reader, a classroom newspaper distributed to 6m children ages six and up across America. The nine- to 18-year-old voters in this quadrennial mock election have been sending in their ballots since 1956, when they backed General Eisenhower over Adlai Stevenson.

The Gore-Bush contest results will be available in early November, just days before the election itself.

The Weekly Reader poll's accuracy probably has to do with the fact that the kids make their choice on secret paper ballots, just as their parents do. There's no voice on the other end of the line to pose skewed questions, no opportunity for suasion and no need for polite untruths. Presidential polls by Scholastic, another school newspaper publisher, have also been on the mark.

Beyond insights into polling accuracy, the kiddie elections reveal some other things about the development of the curious American political consciousness.

The Weekly Reader's young electorate may vote as their parents do, but they have their own set of views: gun violence, tobacco use, and environmental questions are ranked higher than adults.

Weekly Reader polls also suggest that smaller children are more loyal to the status quo than adults. In 1992, the Weekly Reader widened its presidential election to include first, second and third graders. The younger crowd backed Mr Bush over a then-unknown Arkansas governor, Mr Clinton. Their parents chose Mr Clinton. "Little kids", says Charlie Piddock, the Weekly Reader's executive editor, "have a reverence for the president."

All this would suggest that Americans' legendary political disillusionment - only half of voters eligible to vote in presidential elections do so - sets in at a very late age, towards the end of secondary school. (It's no wonder, since those schools impart little of American history to their charges; amorphous "Social Studies" programs featuring baboon behaviour patterns and suburban dating protocol have largely replaced the old facts-and-figures study of the past.) Another negative to list beside the name of America's mediocre secondary schools.

JWR contributor Amity Shlaes is a columnist for Financial Times . Her latest book is The Greedy Hand: How Taxes Drive Americans Crazy and What to Do About It. Send your comments by clicking here.


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© 2000, Financial Times