Booze-Peddling Pollsters:Were They Any Worse?

And so the time passes. It is no longer the same year (nor even, to be precise, the same millennium) as the election of 2000. Bush is preparing for the White House, Gore for his role of youthful elder statesman of the Democratic party, and Nader for his eventual designation as a $300 Jeopardy question.

But as the event recedes into the background, its lessons come to the fore. For politicians, there are many; for journalists, but one of most significance: What is to be done about polls? How do we conduct them in the future? How do we analyze them? How, and when, do we report them?

Perhaps we could take a cue from the founding fathers.

In 1758, a young man was running for a seat in the Virginia House of Burgesses from Frederick County. There were issues of importance at the time, including relations with both the Indians and the Motherland, and the recent fall of Fort Duquesne and its consequences. But did the candidate go into detail on any of these issues with voters?

No. Instead, he bought them a few drinks. He ordered his election agent to get his hands on as much liquor as he could and deliver it to the polling places. And for heaven's sake, the candidate urged, do not spend "with too sparing a hand."

The gentleman in question, George Washington, was well served by his agent. He not only won election to the House of Burgesses but went on to a career of some distinction in national politics. Analyzing the results of the election more than 200 years later, the historian W.J. Rorabaugh wrote: "For his 144 gallons of refreshment, Washington received 307 votes, a return on his investment of better than two votes per gallon.

But booze was not just a means of appealing to voters in early America; it also became, in time, a measure of popular sentiment.

What would happen was this: a few weeks before an election, candidates would stamp their names on barrels of libation and see to it that the barrels were delivered to the local grocery store or dry goods emporium. Voters were told to help themselves. If you were for Mr. A, you reached into his barrel for a cupful of spirits. If candidate B was your man, you dipped into his.

Before long, it occurred to political analysts that the emptier a candidate's barrel, the more likely he was to win the election. Demon rum and its associated beverages were, thus, the forerunners of modern-day polling. An early form of exit polling even evolved. It was not uncommon for a citizen to drink so much of his candidate's hooch that, without further ado, he would depart the realm of consciousness.

As historian Richard Lingeman has pointed out, however, the system was far from foolproof, "since an opponent's supporters frequently would sabotage a candidate by drinking all his whiskey."

Still, barrel-measuring had its merits, as well as its charms, and one wonders how the media would report such a process today. One imagines turning on the television one night and seeing Tom Brokaw at the anchor desk with a vat of whiskey chroma-keyed over his shoulder. "Good evening," he says, "here are the results of the latest NBC News-Four Roses poll."

Or Brit Hume: "We hasten to add that there is a margin of error here of three-to-five shot glasses."

Or Dan Rather: "When we say someone has carried a state, you can take it to the bank. Book it. Hic!"

Remember the polls of 2000? Could the methods of 1758 have been any worse?