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Sunday, December 22, 2013

"Relying on Polls" Is Not a Bad Habit

In Politico, former Washington journalist Sam Youngman writes of trying to kick "bad habits," such as "relying on polls instead of talking to voters."

He is mistaken.  As we explain in our textbook, haphazard conversations with voters do not provide a true gauge of public opinion:
Opinion is a state of mind. Medical imaging may someday show how the brain mulls politics. Until then, we must infer thoughts from acts. Lincoln and Douglas gauged sentiment by listening to audiences, reading mail, and studying newspapers. Politicians still do.

Such informal methods are frequently unreliable. Many people with strong opinions may lack the time to write, call, or show up at meetings. Conversely, floods of letters, e-mails, and phone messages might not represent spontaneous outpourings of public sentiment. Campaigns and interest groups often stir them up to create the appearance of a groundswell. They persuade people to get in touch with officials, newspapers, and radio call-in shows, even supplying model letters or phone scripts. They bus people to rallies and give them signs to wave. Most people rarely write political letters or attend rallies. To understand these quiet Americans, politicians and reporters may talk with “the person in the street.” The problem with this approach is that a few chats are more likely to reflect a particular time and place than to represent a cross section of the public. In midmorning, younger people are at work or in school, so retirees rule the street. Interviews at 10 a.m. will show more concern about social security than student aid.
The only way to know how large numbers of people think is to take a genuine random-sample survey.  As we also explain in the book, these surveys may vary in quality, and interpreting the results takes knowledge of polling technique and political context.  In-depth conversations with voters may help provide such context, but they cannot be a substitute for the survey data.