Public Opinion Polling
I never paid attention to the polls myself.—Harry S Truman.
Carter, Reagan, Bush, and Clinton all designated survey experts to be paid by their respective parties to conduct private research for the White House these survey researchers have had direct access to the president and served as close political advisors.—Shoon K. Murray & Peter Howard.
Public opinion polls have come to have a pervasive and often dangerous impact in America, an impact which has gone largely unrecognized and uncorrected.—Michael Wheeler.
Polls can help make government more efficient and responsive; … they can make this a truer democracy.—George H. Gallup.
In this chapter and the following one we turn to a consideration of public opinion polling—first its procedures and problems, and then its findings about the structure of public opinion.
Public opinion polling is certainly the aspect of psychological measurement with which the general public is most familiar. The major commercial polls, such as Gallup's, appear every week or so in hundreds of newspapers throughout the country. Particularly at national election times, there are almost daily reports about the voting intentions of some part of the public, and aspiring politicians generally hire private polling firms to help determine their “name recognition” and support by voters.
Other groups of pollers are located in academic research institutions, of which the pioneers were the Survey Research Center (SRC) at the University of Michigan and the National Opinion Research Center (NORC) at the University of Chicago. They usually do large-scale and carefully designed research studies that have less-pressing deadlines than those under which the commercial polling firms must operate. For a history of U. S. public opinion research, see J. Converse (1987) or Bradburn and Sudman (1988).
How valid are the results of public opinion polls? The answer to this question depends on several factors, which are discussed in the following sections. Certainly some politicians have concluded that they are not valid. For instance, in 1960, vice-presidential candidate Henry Cabot Lodge said in a campaign speech, “people are going to look back on these polls as one of the hallucinations which the American people have been subjected to I don't think the polls are here to stay” (Hennessy, 1975, p. 56). On the other hand, President Lyndon Johnson often pulled the latest poll out of his pocket to show visitors his popularity rating, when it was favorable (Altschuler, 1986). It appears that most politicians, whether they complain about the polls or praise them, nevertheless still pay close attention to poll results (Barone, 1997; Murray & Howard, 2002).
Despite the wide circulation of opinion-poll information, there are still many widespread misconceptions about the methods, results, and uses of polls. There have even been