Editor's Notebook: Part of our responsibility as citizens is to understand polls for what they are

Feb 1, 2004

Peggy Boyer Long
Credit WUIS/Illinois Issues

The nation’s founders surely would be amazed.

That we have the ability in the 21st century to measure public opinion with some precision might intrigue those scientifically enlightened leaders of the 18th century. But our near-obsession with tracking and analyzing it might simply bewilder them. That we give it such weight might even alarm them. After all, the men who crafted our representative form of government were, for the most part, instinctively disposed to counterbalance, if not contain, popular passions.

Not so today’s leaders, who seek to test it, shape it and co-opt it. Political scientist Herbert Asher suggests polls should be added now to death and taxes as an unavoidable part of American life. “Public opinion polling is a contemporary manifestation of classical democratic theory,” he writes in Polling and the Public: What Every Citizen Should Know. “It attests to the ability of the rational and wise citizen to make informed judgments on the major issues of the day.”

Does he give us too much credit? Asher’s premise is that we can and should, at the least, be informed about the ways in which polls are conducted and the ways in which they are used, and cognizant of their benefits and limitations. That’s also the premise of our conversation this month with pollster Richard Schuldt. He offers some guidelines for weighing the credibility of the political polling we’ll see more of in the coming weeks and months, the most familiar of which are the so-called horse-race polls.

The credible ones are fairly reliable. Yet how do we weigh the value of such polls in our civic life? They can help or hinder the contenders, and certainly bring profit to the consultants who conduct them and the media that promote them. As for the rest of us, they seem little more than entertainment — a sometimes addictive one at that.

And here lies the danger for some analysts. Polls designed to track who is ahead can crowd out more substantial information about the candidates. Further, they can influence the outcome. 

Still, what political junkie could ignore the day-to-day drama in Iowa, tricky as it is to poll a caucus state, or New Hampsire? It seems best to take polls for what they are: an adrenaline-charged snapshot in time that is employed for fun and profit.

We can tune in and tune out at our own discretion. In fact, it is best to tune in just before an election. A case in point is Illinois’ race for the U.S. Senate. This far out, the undecideds are winning both primaries by a landslide. The leading candidates are still bunched in the teens. Polling in that race will become more relevant only after the contenders begin to build name recognition. 

Credible as they are, we should view horse-race polls with skepticism. That is true, as well, for the polls designed to gauge the standing of incumbents. As we were going to press, a New York Times/CBS News poll reported the public gives high marks to President George W. Bush for his handling of the war on terrorism, but has doubts about his handling of the economy. Those polled also judged his plan to head back to the moon too risky and expensive.

That poll was released as a run-up to the president’s State of the Union address, meaning the numbers would be moot in mere hours.

The shelf-life for such polls is short. And — this is the danger in these types of polls — they are especially sensitive to events that can sway the public’s mood, the capture of Saddam Hussein, say, or September 11. This makes them susceptible, as well, to manipulation by officials. 

Yet they can give us some sense of how how others see things.

As do the issue polls, though they are the trickiest to interpret. Schuldt warns that pollsters can be creative. “Part of politics is defining the issues. It’s a totally legitimate way of using polls, to see how different dimensions of issues can influence distribution of public opinion. That is a good way to look at public opinion polls.” 

He also warns that polling is not a good way to set public policy. In a representative democracy, citizens, however well-informed, can’t be expected to be experts in the nuances of every major question of the day. 

A well-meaning citizen might be busy getting supper on the table or the kids to bed when a pollster calls and asks for an opinion on the intricacies of federal tax policy. 

Our founders understand this dilemma. So they devised a system of government that enables us to elect people whose full-time job it is to weigh the nuances. 

Not that this gives us a pass on staying informed — about the issues or the polls. We have our civic job, too. As we head into this election season, part of our responsibility will be to understand, and judge, how and why information gets to us.

Part of our responsibility is to understand the polls for what they are, a small part of a wider public discourse. And that’s something the nation’s founders would surely appreciate. 

For more information

Polling and the Public: What Every Citizen Should Know by Herbert Asher, Congressional Quarterly Press. Paperback, 2001. The sixth edition is due out next month.

Calling Elections: The History of Horse-Race Journalism by Thomas B. Littlewood, University of Notre Dame Press. Hardcover, 1999. Paperback, 2000.

The Superpollsters: How They Measure and Manipulate Public Opinion in America by David W. Moore, Four Walls Eight Windows. Hardcover, 1992. Paperback, 1995. 

www.gallup.com offers the latest opinion studies on politics, policy, business and sports, including public attitudes about Pete Rose.

www.pollingreport.com offers recent polling results and trends. This is an independent subscriber-based service, but it offers some information to the general public. Click on Table of Contents.

Peggy Boyer Long can be reached at Peggyboy@aol.com.


Illinois Issues,February 2004