Why do pollsters measure public opinion? That’s a pretty fundamental and important question for those of us in the polling profession. As one might expect, the answers are complicated, but well worth spending some time discussing.
The American governmental system set up by the Founders placed the ultimate power in the hands of the nation’s people. The people elect and send their representatives to Washington. The people of the nation can even change the Constitution itself if they are so inclined, although the Founders (wisely) made this a difficult procedure. At its core, in short, the views and opinions and attitudes of the American public are the fundamental basis for our government.
Nothing is entirely straightforward, of course. The Founders were wary of how the people’s power could be exercised. That’s why they set up a system of representatives -- one group of whom (the U.S. Senate) is today separated from the vote of the people by a long six years. And the Founders did not specify that everyone in the country gets to vote, but instead left that determination up to the states. For many years as a result, subsets of the people (Black Americans, indigenous people, nonlandowners, women) were excluded from voting for their representatives. But throughout all of this change, the general principle of the power of the people as the basis for government has endured.
Which brings us to our key question: With systems in place that reflect the views of the people through their vote, what is the value in using our ability to systematically measure public opinion between elections?
One possibility, like the answer to the question about why we climb Mt. Everest, is simply “because it is there.” Over the past 100 years or so, methods have been developed that can reliably produce valid estimates of the attitudes of the entire U.S. population using samples. Gallup, which published its first poll result in 1935, has been joined by many other organizations that regularly measure what the American public is thinking and feeling (Pew Research recently listed an astonishing 78 different organizations that regularly conduct national polls and release the results). The tools to measure public opinion are there, and it is not surprising that they are being put to use.
But there are many other reasons polling makes a valid contribution to the way our nation functions. Dr. George Gallup had strong thoughts on this topic and spent a good deal of his professional life defending polling’s value. I’ve written a book extending these arguments, a volume that sits alongside many other books and articles (some critical of polling) addressing the issue. There has been a great deal of other academic and scholarly thought. As one important example, the American Association for Public Opinion Research (AAPOR) in 2013 published a 138-page report on the topic of Public Opinion and Democracy, which provides excellent background for the interested reader.
At the bottom of it all, I come back to six key reasons why I think it is vitally important to systematically measure public opinion on an ongoing basis.
1. Polling provides an evidence-based way for elected representatives to stay in touch with the opinions of the people they represent. Representatives may claim to have their fingers on the pulse of the people -- using constituent mail and email, visits with the people back home in districts and states, monitoring Facebook® and Twitter®, and so forth. It’s fair to say, however, that these systems for knowing what the people are “thinking tonight” are inadequate. Members of the U.S. House represent well over 700,000 people on average; senators from the more populous states represent tens of millions; and the overall national population is now over 330 million. Monitoring emails, texts, letters, news and social media, and having town hall meetings are arguably not going to allow the elected representatives to understand the attitudes and opinions of all the people in their district or state or (importantly) the nation as a whole between elections.
As the AAPOR report noted, “Voting is in effect a low-information-providing action that decides on who should be the people’s representative, but does not ‘speak’ or express much else. The information content of elections needs to be inferred from other sources of information about public opinion from polls and additional sources.” Polling provides by far the best way to reach this understanding.
There are debates about how rigorously elected representatives should attempt to take into account the opinions of the people rather than doing what they (the representatives) think is right. But it is hard to argue against the conclusion that representatives are better off if they know what the nation’s people are thinking than if they don’t.
2. Elected representatives can use polling to monitor the opinions of the millions of people in the nation who, for whatever reason, don’t vote. The number of Americans who actually vote in elections is much smaller than the overall population, particularly in the primaries that are the key to winning elections in congressional districts and states that are heavily skewed toward one party or the other. This means a relatively small percentage of the American population controls who is sent to Washington and to state capitals. Polling provides representatives with the views of all the people, not just those who vote. And I don’t think one can convincingly argue that the opinions of the huge number of Americans who for whatever reason don’t or can’t vote should be ignored.
3. The public can collectively provide wisdom and insight that benefit policy decision-makers. This can be a controversial assertion. Americans are not experts on many topics on which government focuses. That’s why Congress has hearings, takes testimony, goes on junkets and has at its beck and call thousands of expert bureaucrats across government departments and agencies. But the people included in a national poll have a wide variety of experiences across all dimensions of daily life -- and, as I have noted in Polling Matters, “bring to bear a distillation of perspectives on the world that is in many ways more well-rounded than any panel of elites or experts could possibly duplicate.” The people’s vast array of experiences and perspectives provides invaluable context and guidance for government policymaking.
Keep in mind that this concept of the collective wisdom of the people is the basis for our entire political system. Ultimately, the government of the nation is controlled by the people rather than by a king or other persons or small groups who think they and they only are endowed with the wisdom to make decisions. Given this fact -- that the opinions of the people are the ultimate and binding authority in this country -- it is hard to argue that their collective opinions outside of elections should be ignored.
Plus, given that the public is ultimately in charge, ignoring their opinions can have practical consequences, whether or not their opinions are as accurate as might emanate from a group of renowned experts.
4. Polling helps calibrate priorities for elected representatives. This is particularly important given the huge influence of lobbyists, wealthy donors, political action committees, party bosses, ideologues and others whose job it is to push for government action on their particular policy focus. Polling allows us to see what most concerns the average person in the country in the midst of this cacophony of cries for attention on the hundreds of issues that come before elected representatives. (As one example, if elected representatives monitor Americans’ views of the most important problem facing the nation today, they will discover that the public believes that they themselves -- that is, government -- are most in need of attention.)
5. Americans themselves benefit from knowing what others are thinking and feeling. This is particularly true in our age of political polarization. Americans increasingly live in an information bubble that allows them to pay attention only to media that reinforce their preexisting ideological or partisan viewpoints on the issues of the day. This makes it easy to perceive that what one is seeing and hearing through selective media is how most people think. Polling can show this is not the case.
Of course, rigid ideologues who are convinced that their way of looking at the world, and only their way, is correct don’t have to pay attention to polling that shows otherwise.
But regardless, it is good to have summaries of public opinion out there and available for use. Polling provides the best mechanism for telling the public where their opinions and ideologies stand in the context of those of their fellow Americans.
6. Systematic polling helps provide an evidenced-based check on public figures who make assertions about public opinion. Without scientific polling, there is little check on those who claim they know what the public is thinking, often based on inadequate or biased or misleading information. It is commonplace to hear politicians and commentators attempt to bolster their positions and policy preferences with statements that “the American people” want this or that. Polling helps evaluate the veracity of those claims.
The discussion above focuses on what I would call the theoretical justifications for measuring public opinion in our representative democracy. Even if we agree on polling’s importance in the abstract, however, practical issues arise in effectively measuring opinions. These include sampling, question wording, nonresponse, and the connection between people’s behavioral responses to survey questions on the one hand and their behavior in different contexts on the other. Plus, there are issues of the level of analysis -- whether elected representatives should pay attention just to the opinions of their constituencies or to the views of the broader American public. And there is the pressing need to review and synthesize public opinion research on a given topic to make it more accessible to those who want to use it. All of these are valid topics for discussion and debate.
But the challenges involved in attempting to do a good job of measuring public opinion don’t obviate the original premise about its value. In America’s representative democracy, we are always better off knowing what the public is thinking than not.