Polling & Public Opinion: The good, the bad, and the ugly

June 1, 2003

If you took a public opinion poll about polls, odds are that a majority would offer some rather unfavorable views of pollsters and the uses to which their work is put. Many potential respondents might simply slam down their telephones. Yet if you asked whether politicians, business leaders, and journalists should pay attention to the people’s voices, almost everyone would say yes. And if you then asked whether polls are, at least, one tool through which the wishes of the people can be discerned, a reluctant majority would probably say yes to that too.

Several conundrums of public opinion polling are enfolded in this hypothetical tale. People of all kinds, activists and ordinary citizens alike, regularly cite polls, especially those that find them in the majority. But people are deeply skeptical of polls, especially when opinion moves in the “wrong” direction.

Some of their doubts are about pollsters’ methods. Do they ask the right questions? Are they manipulating the wording of questions to get the responses they want? And whom did they interview? Some of the doubts are wrapped up in a mistrust of the political parties, marketers, and media giants that pay for the polls.

The imaginary example also shows that it matters greatly how the pollsters ask their questions. Sometimes, respondents offer opinions on subjects about which they have not thought much and do not care at all. People sometimes answer pollsters’ questions just to be polite—because they figure they probably ought to have an opinion. That gives pollsters a lot of running room to “manufacture” opinion, especially on issues of narrow rather than wide concern.

Even when people have strong views, a single polling question rarely captures those views well. Human beings are complicated and so are their opinions. Using the findings of our example, enemies of polls could cite the public’s doubts to “prove” that the public is against polls. Friends of polls could note that the public, however grudgingly, agrees that polls are one tool for gauging public opinion and that leaders should consult public opinion. They could thus “prove” that the public embraces polls. Both ways of looking at the findings would use reality to distort reality.

This issue of the Brookings Review examines how polls work, what they can teach us about public opinion, and what role public opinion does and should play in our democracy. We bring to this magazine a straightforward bias in favor of polling, shaped, in part, by our early professional experiences. Mann spent much of his graduate school time at the University of Michigan’s Survey Research Center and then conducted polls for congressional candidates in the 1970s. Dionne did graduate work with a heavy focus on public opinion and helped start the New York Times/CBS News Poll in 1975. We share a belief that the study of what citizens think about politics and policy is a genuine contribution to democracy. It’s especially important in democracies whose politicians claim their mandates from the people and regularly insist that they represent the views and interests of the people. To ask the people, with regularity, for their own thoughts strikes us as being both useful and a check on the claims of those in power.

But it is precisely because of our respect for polling that we are disturbed by many things done in its name. When interest groups commission pollsters to ask leading questions to gather “scientific” proof that the public agrees with whatever demand they are making on government, they demean polling and mislead the public. When analysts, sometimes innocently, use poll numbers as a definitive guide to public opinion even on issues to which most people have given little thought, they are writing fiction more than citing fact. When political consultants use information gathered through polling and focus groups to camouflage their clients’ controversial policies with soothing, symbol-laden, and misleading rhetoric, they frustrate democratic deliberation.

On many issues the public does not have fully formed and unambiguous views. That does not mean there is anything wrong with the public. In a democracy, citizens are typically more concerned with some matters than others, and most citizens are not continuously engaged in public affairs. Certain obscure questions of public policy, while important, will never engage a mass public. Polling that does not deal with these basic facts of democratic life is producing something other than real information.

Simpler methodological concerns also arise. Some surveys are more carefully produced than others. Quick and cheap surveys and focus groups can be useful to, say, marketers and campaign managers who need information fast—and know its limits. But it is often difficult for the public and even professionals to be certain about the quality of the data they see, let alone whether broad conclusions from such data are even justified. Declining response rates, emerging technologies, and early voting are posing yet more obstacles for even the most responsible of pollsters.

Public opinion is an illusive commodity. Attempts to measure it, as Samuel Popkin argues in The Reasoning Voter, will perforce reveal inconsistency and change. These problems arise, Popkin insists, not because the public is insufficiently educated, informed, or motivated. “Ambivalence is simply an immutable fact of life.” As a consequence, citizens use information shortcuts when making decisions in the political arena-with new and personal information driving out the old and impersonal. With the public lacking fixed preferences on many issues, political actors have ample incentive to supply those shortcuts in ways that might broaden support for themselves and the policies they champion.

Relationships between citizens and leaders, between public opinion and democratic governance, are complex. Many fear that contemporary politicians too often put their fingers to the wind of public opinion in deciding what policies to advance. Yet the very fragility and ambiguity of public opinion make the use of polls problematic as a direct, dominant guide to formulating public policy. President George W. Bush and Prime Minister Tony Blair clearly sought to lead their publics on the need to disarm and depose Saddam Hussein in Iraq. Both largely succeeded.

But pandering to public opinion and leading public opinion do not exhaust the ways in which political leaders and citizens interact. Politicians can be sensitive to underlying public values while leaning against current public preferences. In response to public concerns, they can, as Bush did by going to Congress and to the UN Security Council for authorization to move against Iraq, adjust the process without changing the content of their policy decisions. Politicians and interest group leaders can also shape—and manipulate—public opinion to build broad nominal support for policies mainly serving the interests of their core supporters. This natural dynamic of politics has, in the era of the permanent campaign, dramatically increased the artificiality and disingenuousness of much public discourse.

Polling is a tool, not a principle. The authors in this issue come neither to praise nor to bury polling. They do, however, acknowledge how important it has become in our democracy. They stress Ronald Reagan’s “trust but verify” rule. And they urge us to remember the great difference between the idea that the people should rule and the use of polls to determine public policy or manipulate the people’s will. We’re sure the people agree with us. If you doubt that, just take a poll.