Has Polling Killed Democracy?: Highlights from the Polling Panel
George Gallup, an early and enthusiastic promoter, heralded public opinion polling as a fabulous new tool that would save democracy by enabling leaders to hear, for the first time, the true voice of the people. Today, polling's legacy is less clear.
The Miller of Public Affairs at the University of Virginia recently brought together a group of leading public opinion polling scholars and practioners to examine public opinion polling's effect on American democracy.
Here are some video highlights from this lively and engaging debate. For more information about the Miller Center polling panel and its participants, including the complete video broadcast, see the Has Polling Killed Democracy? website. The website provides users with "one-stop" shopping for information on political polling in America.
1. Sarah Igo, Vanderbilt University Department of History and author of The Averaged American: Surveys, Citizens, and the Making of a Mass Public, argues that pioneer George Gallup, for better or worse, made a singular contribution to the development of political polling in America.
George Gallup is here on the screen for you to look at as I begin, and I want to begin with his words today. "What is the common man thinking?" George Gallup asked in 1940. And he claimed to provide what he called "a modern answer" on the basis not of guess work but of facts by announcing the birth of a new instrument -- the modern public opinion poll -- that could, Gallup said, "provide a continuous chart of the opinions of the man in the street" ... Historically, public opinion has had many many different shades of meaning. In 1965 the founder of the journal Public Opinion Quarterly was able to list some fifty competing definitions for the term. One sign of George Gallup’s astonishing success is today’s ready conflation of poll data and public opinion. That is, the near complete merging of the people’s will and a particular and historically quite recent technique for measuring it.
Download Igo Clip
2. Nick Winter, University of Virginia Department of Politics, explains that political leaders can and have used polls to manipulate public opinion and thwart true democratic responsiveness.
This lack of basic information and political knowledge and perhaps simple capacity to distinguish fact from fable makes many Americans quite vulnerable to manipulation by politicians and advocates wielding the usual instruments of advertising and publicity. And the key point here is not just that citizens may not be fully competent, that is a problem for democracy whether or not we are doing polling, but rather that polling can be a critical tool in the endeavor by political leaders to shape opinion through public relations rather than through real responsiveness. That it allows leaders to see what does it take to generate the opinion statements in polls that will support what I want to do.
Download Winter Clip
3. Don Kinder, University of Michigan Department of Politics, argues that polls, despite their shortcomings, promote democracy by giving all Americans, regardless of wealth or status, a voice in governmental decision making.
There is the danger here of the perfect being the enemy of the good. There is lots of imperfection in public opinion polling, less now than at the time you were writing for sure. Still, plenty of imperfection, but comparatively speaking the public opinion poll is a source of democratic information. Its information about by and large what lots of people think, not just what the local publisher of the newspaper thinks, not just what the Kiwanis club thinks, not just what the big donor thinks.
Download Kinder Clip
4. Mark Blumenthal, editor of Pollster.com, suggests that polls could play a more constructive role in American politics if pollsters did a better job of disclosing the technical information of their polls.
What are the polls disclosing about what they do? And I counted up - - there were fifteen pollsters and I think forty-five surveys at that point in Pennsylvania - - how much they told us about what they did. Of the fifteen pollsters there were only five who in their public release specified what we call the sampling frame - - how they sampled. Whether it was a random digit process, where they randomly scramble the phone number, or off of a voter list. There were only five who said that. In the code of the American Association for Public Opinion Research and every pollster organization this is supposed to a basic thing. Not in the release. . . . I think the path towards better is about doing a better job disclosing this stuff. I think reporters would be better informed and ultimately readers and viewers would be better informed if people like me and smart reporters new more about how these polls were done. I don’t think we all have to get degrees in survey methodology. But like food labeling we need to do a better job of telling people about the ingredients of this stuff that we’re reporting on that influence our elections and our democracy.
Download Blumenthal Clip