Leaders Should Not Follow Opinion Polls. (National Affairs)

By Weissberg, Robert | USA TODAY, May 2002 | Go to article overview

Leaders Should Not Follow Opinion Polls. (National Affairs)


Weissberg, Robert, USA TODAY


IN THE SPACE OF 50 YEARS, the public opinion poll has evolved from an occasional curiosity to a carefully heeded political force. "Bad poll numbers" can be disastrous. Nobody wants to champion unpopular schemes or seek public office when drawing single-digit name recognition in the latest survey. Even skeptical officials routinely monitor approval ratings lest tumbling figures embolden rivals. Poll-supplied numbers often shape momentous decisions. The Reagan White House spent $1.000,000 a year on polling. Pres. Bill Clinton's legislative agenda on spending the budget surplus, funding Social Security, and other key issues was shaped almost entirely by poll findings. When he discovered that his plan to make parents legally, responsible for their children's crimes drew dismal numbers, it was quickly abandoned.

Is such homage to the polls wise? Pollsters certainly think so. They celebrate their accomplishments as promoting democracy, especially defending the "ordinary citizen" against the powerful. Telephone surveys, they maintain, allow once-unheard voices to force government responsiveness. Ordinary citizens seemingly echo pollsters' claims. One 1999 survey found that 80% believed the nation Would benefit if leaders heeded poll results. Ninety percent expressed greater confidence in their own reasoning over what leaders believed. Two-thirds agreed with the pollsters that polls served the public interest.

We profoundly disagree--surveys cannot provide useful advice. It is not that numbers lie, analysts are dishonest, or people are secretive over the telephone, although these misrepresentations do occur. The surveys' shortcomings are more serious and. critically, these deficiencies are not curable under present-day conditions, if at all. What garden-variety advice solicitations uncover is generally politically irrelevant, even if respondents are absolutely honest and the highest technical standards are satisfied. The wrong opinions are being collected, and leaders following this guidance only invite trouble. Intuition or personal experiences provide a better course of action.

Let's begin by comparing polling with elections. An obvious point is that elections impose strict participatory standards. Laws about voting stipulate necessary age, citizenship, and residency qualifications plus standards of mental competence and criminal background for potential voters. Detailed registration requirements guard against fraud. "Everybody welcome, no questions asked" sign on Election Day! Abolishing standards would insult democracy. Who would accept an outcome if illegal immigrants or foreign tourists cast millions of ballots?

The modern poll, by contrast, resembles a "you cannot be turned down" credit card offer. Who knows if the agreeable voice at the other end is really a citizen, over 18, or mentally competent? The interviewer can hardly verify fraudulent claims by checking proof of age, citizenship documents, or any other requirement prior to soliciting opinions. The opposite is possible as well. No doubt, millions of absolutely qualified voters are "disqualified" by interviewers if their English is limited or if they are uneasy about revealing guarded views to strangers.

The vote. unlike the survey response, is private, and this protection is legally guaranteed. The scientific pollster is absolutely correct that small samples can represent entire populations. This is beside the point, though. Random samples of people owning phones are not legally stipulated governing majorities. Governance is only by those legally permitted to participate, however we may draw the lines. It is bizarre to insist that any 1,000 people selected by a random number generator should authoritatively advise government.

The electoral process is also eminently accountable and transparent. Everything about it, from ballot layout to polling place location, must pass official approval. These critical details may be flawed--recall the famous Palm Beach, Fla. …

The rest of this article is only available to active members of Questia

Sign up now for a free, 1-day trial and receive full access to:

  • Questia's entire collection
  • Automatic bibliography creation
  • More helpful research tools like notes, citations, and highlights
  • Ad-free environment

Already a member? Log in now.

Notes for this article

Add a new note
If you are trying to select text to create highlights or citations, remember that you must now click or tap on the first word, and then click or tap on the last word.
One moment ...
Default project is now your active project.
Project items

Items saved from this article

This article has been saved
Highlights (0)
Some of your highlights are legacy items.

Highlights saved before July 30, 2012 will not be displayed on their respective source pages.

You can easily re-create the highlights by opening the book page or article, selecting the text, and clicking “Highlight.”

Citations (0)
Some of your citations are legacy items.

Any citation created before July 30, 2012 will labeled as a “Cited page.” New citations will be saved as cited passages, pages or articles.

We also added the ability to view new citations from your projects or the book or article where you created them.

Notes (0)
Bookmarks (0)

You have no saved items from this article

Project items include:
  • Saved book/article
  • Highlights
  • Quotes/citations
  • Notes
  • Bookmarks
Notes
Cite this article

Cited article

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

(Einhorn, 1992, p. 25)

(Einhorn 25)

1

1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

Cited article

Leaders Should Not Follow Opinion Polls. (National Affairs)
Settings

Settings

Typeface
Text size Smaller Larger Reset View mode
Search within

Search within this article

Look up

Look up a word

  • Dictionary
  • Thesaurus
Please submit a word or phrase above.
Print this page

Print this page

Why can't I print more than one page at a time?

Full screen

matching results for page

Cited passage

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

"Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn, 1992, p. 25).

"Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn 25)

"Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences."1

1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

Cited passage

Welcome to the new Questia Reader

The Questia Reader has been updated to provide you with an even better online reading experience.  It is now 100% Responsive, which means you can read our books and articles on any sized device you wish.  All of your favorite tools like notes, highlights, and citations are still here, but the way you select text has been updated to be easier to use, especially on touchscreen devices.  Here's how:

1. Click or tap the first word you want to select.
2. Click or tap the last word you want to select.

OK, got it!

Thanks for trying Questia!

Please continue trying out our research tools, but please note, full functionality is available only to our active members.

Your work will be lost once you leave this Web page.

For full access in an ad-free environment, sign up now for a FREE, 1-day trial.

Already a member? Log in now.