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. The well-established magazine suddenly became a laughingstock and soon went out of business. Although the number of responses the magazine obtained for its poll was a staggering 2,376,000, its polling methods were badly flawed. Trying to reach as many people as possible, the magazine drew names from the biggest lists they could find: telephone books and motor vehicle records. In the midst of the Great Depression, the people on these lists were above the average income level (only 40 percent of the public had telephones then; fewer still owned cars) and were more likely to vote Republican. The moral of the story is this: accu-rate representation, not the number of responses, is the most important feature of a public opinion survey. Indeed, the failure of the polls in 2016 to predict Donald Trump’s stunning vic-tory was also due to problems in obtaining an accurate representation of the elector-ate. A blue-ribbon panel of pollsters who examined the 2016 polls found that there was a pervasive overrepresentation of college graduates in the polls because they were more likely to participate in surveys.24 Because college graduates voted for Clinton over Trump by a 56–36 margin, their overrepresentation in the 2016 surveys meant that the polls overestimated Clinton’s lead in the popular vote both nation-wide and within key battleground states. The panel of experts recommended that, in the future, pollsters should carefully adjust their samples to take into account any over-or underrepresentation of educational groups. This practice is known as weighting the data, which computer technology makes quite easy. Computer and telephone technology has also made surveying less expensive

and more commonplace. In the early days of polling, pollsters needed a national network of interviewers to traipse door to door in their localities with a clipboard of questions. Now most polling is done on the telephone with samples selected through random-digit dialing. Calls are placed to phone numbers within randomly chosen exchanges (for example, 512-471-XXXX) around the country. In this man-ner, both listed and unlisted numbers are reached at a cost of about one-fifth that of person-to-person interviewing. There are a couple of disadvantages, however. A small percentage of the population does not have a phone, and people are sub-stantially less willing to participate over the telephone than in person—it is easier to hang up than to slam the door in someone’s face. These are small trade-offs for political candidates running for minor offices, for whom telephone polls are an af-fordable method of gauging public opinion. However, in this era of cell phones, many pollsters are starting to worry whether this methodology will continue to be affordable. As of 2017, government studies showed that about 52 percent of the adult population had cell phone service only. (This percentage is significantly higher among young adults, minorities, and people who are transient.) Because federal law prohibits the use of automated dialing programs to contact cell phone numbers, pollsters have to use the far more expensive procedure of dialing these numbers manually. In addition, studies have shown that people are much less likely to agree to be interviewed when they are reached on a cell phone as compared to a landline. All told, Mark Mellman, one of America’s top political pollsters, estimates that it is 5 to 15 times as expensive to gather interviews from the cell-phone-only segment of the population as from landline users.25 Although big firms like Gallup have successfully made the adjustment so far, the costs of conduct-ing phone polls are likely to further escalate as more people give up their landlines. As with many other aspects of commerce in America, the future of polling may

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lie with the Internet. Internet pollsters, such as Knowledge Networks, assemble rep-resentative panels of the population by first contacting people on the phone and ask-ing them whether they are willing to participate in Web-based surveys on a variety of topics. If they agree, they are paid a small sum every time they participate. And if they don’t have Internet access, they are provided with it as part of their compensa-tion. Once someone agrees to participate, he or she is then contacted exclusively by e-mail. As Knowledge Networks proclaims, “This permits surveys to be fielded very quickly and economically. In addition, this approach reduces the burden placed on respondents, since e-mail notification is less obtrusive than telephone calls, and most respondents find answering Web questionnaires to be more interesting and engaging than being questioned by a telephone interviewer.”26 From its modest beginning with George Gallup’s 1932 polls for his mother-in-law in Iowa, polling has become a big business. That it has grown so much and spread throughout the world is no surprise: from Manhattan to Moscow, from Tulsa to Tokyo, people want to know what other people think.

The Role of Polls in American Democracy Polls help political candidates detect public preferences. Supporters of polling insist that it is a tool for democracy. With it, they say, policymakers can keep in touch with chang-ing opinions on the issues. No longer do politicians have to wait until the next election to see whether the public approves or disapproves of the government’s course. If the poll results shift, then government officials can make corresponding midcourse correc-tions. Indeed, it was George Gallup’s fondest hope that polling could contribute to the democratic process by providing a way for public desires to be heard at times other than elections. His son, George Gallup, Jr., argued that this hope had been realized in prac-tice, that polling had “removed power out of the hands of special interest groups,” and “given people who wouldn’t normally have a voice a voice.”27 Critics of polling, by contrast, say it makes politicians more concerned with following than leading. Polls might have told the Constitutional Convention del-egates that the Constitution was unpopular or might have told President Thomas Jefferson that people did not want the Louisiana Purchase. Certainly they would have told William Seward not to buy Alaska, a transaction known widely at the time as “Seward’s Folly.” Polls may thus discourage bold leadership, like that of Winston Churchill, who once said,

Nothing is more dangerous than to live in the temperamental atmosphere of a Gallup poll, always taking one’s pulse and taking one’s temperature. . . . There is only one duty, only one safe course, and that is to try to be right and not to fear to do or say what you believe.28

Based on their research, Jacobs and Shapiro argue that the common perception of politicians pandering to the results of public opinion polls may be mistaken. Their examination of major recent debates finds that political leaders “track public opinion not to make policy but rather to determine how to craft their public presentations and win public support for the policies they and their supporters favor.”29 Staff members in both the White House and Congress repeatedly remarked that their purpose in con-ducting polls was not to set policies but rather to find the key words and phrases with which to promote policies already in place. Thus, rather than using polls to identify centrist approaches that will have the broadest popular appeal, Jacobs and Shapiro argue, elites use them to formulate strategies that enable them to avoid compromis-ing on what they want to do. As President Obama’s chief pollster, Joel Benenson, said about his work for Obama: “Our job isn’t to tell him what to do. Our job is to help him figure out if he can strengthen his message and persuade more people to his side. The starting point is where he is and then you try to help strengthen the message and his reasons for doing something.”30 Yet polls might weaken democracy in another way—they may distort the elec-toral process by focusing on who is ahead more than on what people think about public policy questions. The policy issues of recent presidential campaigns have sometimes been drowned out by a steady flood of polls concerned with which candi-date is currently ahead. Probably the most widely criticized type of poll is the Election Day exit poll. For this type of poll, voting places are randomly selected around the country. Workers are then sent to these places and told to ask every tenth person how he or she voted. The results are accumulated toward the end of the day, enabling the television net-works to project the outcomes of all but very close races before hardly any votes are actually counted. Critics have charged that this practice makes people wonder whether their votes matter at all. The TV networks respond that it is their job to re-port winners and losers as soon as technologically possible. Furthermore, they argue that exit polls also enable them to immediately report what sorts of groups have voted which way and for what particular reasons. Perhaps the most pervasive criticism of polling is that by altering the wording of a question, pollsters can manipulate the results. Small changes in question wording can sometimes produce significantly different results. For example, numerous surveys have found that people respond to questions about health reform quite differently depending on whether they are asked about “Obamacare” or “the Affordable Health Care Act,” despite the fact that they are just different names for the same piece of legislation.31 In evaluating public opinion data, it is crucial to carefully evaluate how questions are posed. Fortunately, most major polling organizations now post their questionnaires online, thereby making it much easier than ever before for everyone to scrutinize their work.


A nuts-and-bolts knowledge of how polls are conducted will help you avoid the

common mistake of taking poll results for solid fact. But being an informed consumer of polls also requires that you think about whether the questions are fair and unbi-ased. The good—or the harm—that polls do depends on how well the data are col-lected and how thoughtfully the data are interpreted.


What Polls Reveal About Americans’ Political Information

Thomas Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton had very different views about the wisdom of common people. Jefferson trusted people’s good sense and believed that education would enable them to take the tasks of citizenship ever more seriously. In contrast, Hamilton lacked confidence in people’s capacity for self-government. His response to Jefferson was the infamous phrase, “Your people, sir, is a great beast.”32 If there had been polling data in the early days of the American republic, Hamilton would probably have delighted in throwing some of the results in Jefferson’s face. If public opinion analysts agree about anything, it is that the level of public knowledge about politics is dismally low. No amount of Jeffersonian faith in the wisdom of the common people can erase the fact that Americans are not well informed about politics. Polls have regularly found that less than half the public can name their representative in the House. Asking people to explain their opinion on whether the Trans-Pacific Partnership free trade agreement was a good deal for the United States or whether the Keystone Pipeline should have been approved or whether they would like to see a constitutional amendment to overturn the Supreme Court’s ruling in the Citizens United case often elicits blank looks

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