NEW YORK – Superstitious voters or those who are just tired of traditional polls might want to pay close attention to ice cream flavors, Halloween masks, road maps and even their dogs' favorite treats.
Presidential predictions from professional pollsters like Zogby (search), Gallup (search) and others may use a margin of error to pad their projections about the Nov. 2 election. But a host of zany election "forecasts" from companies like Rand McNally, 7-11, BuyCostumes.com and Cabbage Patch Kids are forgetting the usual survey methods and offering up their predictions, which may or not be as credible as a Magic Eight Ball fortune teller.
"It has no bearing on what's going to happen in the election," said Greg Strimple, a Republican pollster and founding partner of Mercury Public Affairs. "But it's a great, great marketing ploy by these companies to drive sales into their business."
The occasional silly presidency-related gimmick or product has always been offered during election season. But the list of retailers small and large trying to make a buck off this year's race between George Bush (search) and John Kerry (search) is dizzying.
7-11 convenience stores, for instance, are getting coffee drinkers to "vote" for Bush, Kerry or neither by pouring their brew into one of three different cups. Earlier this month, the candidates were in a dead heat in the chain's "Presidential Coffee Cup Poll."
Atlas maker Rand McNally claims the next president will be the one whose first or last name appears most often on maps — and the words George and Bush factor into more 2005 "Road Atlas" geographic locations than John and Kerry. BuyCostumes.com advertises its "Presidential Mask Election Predictor," claiming whichever candidate is the more popular Halloween disguise wins the presidency. The company's track record dates to 1980.
VanDogh Creations is selling Bush-BITES and Kerry-Waffles canine snacks, and more pooches are munching on Bush-BITES — meaning, of course, they support Kerry. Both products have sold out, according to the company's Web site.
More people think the George Bush Cabbage Patch Kid is cuter than the John Kerry doll, more western Pennsylvania ice cream eaters ordered "Bushberry" over "Kerryberry" sundaes at Valley Dairy and people can order an elephant or donkey Zippo lighters to show which party lights their fire.
One Web site claims that the Washington Redskins have psychic powers when it comes to the presidency. Since 1936 — in the past 15 elections — if the football team has lost its last home game before voting day then the incumbent party has lost the White House. This year, that game is against the Green Bay Packers on Halloween Sunday.
But does anyone really take the crazy contests seriously?
"Junk polls are more for entertainment than for information," said Kellyanne Conway, a professional pollster and president of The Polling Co. in Washington, D.C. "These are tongue-in-cheek, spur of the moment, snap-trigger responses of what self-selected audiences feel."
The vendors themselves say they're just having a little fun.
"Our goal is to give people a fun way to participate by letting their dogs do the talking," Chris Jones, who created the VanDogh Bush and Kerry biscuits, said in a press release about the contest.
For Valley Dairy President Joe Greubel, the ice cream "research" was a way to throw a little sweet into an oft-bitter political fight.
"Being upbeat and positive is more the American way," Greubel told The Associated Press.
Of course, some patrons have gotten vicious in using products to pick the president.
At Nakama Japanese Steakhouse & Sushi Bar in Pittsburgh — located in one of the most hotly contested swing states — diners use kidney beans to pick either Heinz (as in Kerry's wife, Teresa Heinz Kerry) or W Ketchup and express their political leanings. Customers have trashed the restaurant's "voting booth" with smeared ketchup and spilled beans.
"Most people are good-natured and others really get in an uproar about this," Nakama owner Becky Gomes told The AP.
For the record, the silly so-called "polls" aren't really polls in the true sense of the word, and probably say more about capitalism than they do about democracy.
"I don't find it surprising that corporations would cater to what is the hottest thing to discuss right now," said political analyst Daedre Levine. "Marketers use babies a lot in advertisements because people respond to babies. Right now, people respond to the candidates. That's all this comes down to."
And of course, the contests will skew one way or the other depending on the location of the contest or the product involved.
"If I have one of these things in Harlem, everybody is going to buy John Kerry ice cream. If I have one in rural Texas, everyone's going to buy George Bush ice cream," Strimple said. "What does it tell you about the election? Nothing."
But the wacky consumer surveys do speak to the connection between political races and the fads of the day.
"There is a lot in elections that is about pop culture," said Levine. "In order to win in today's political environment, you need to appeal to popular culture."
Some professional survey-takers say they're frustrated with every profit-seeking Tom, Dick and Harry who claims to be conducting political "polls" when what he is really doing isn't backed by science, research or data.
"The 'poll' has lost its true empirical meaning," Conway said. "It's not fun to professional pollsters that, 'abracadabra! Everybody's a pollster now,' and they don't know what they're talking about."