Getting a Handle on the Polls

By O'Leary, Mick | Information Today, June 2013 | Go to article overview

Getting a Handle on the Polls


O'Leary, Mick, Information Today


Once the presidential election was over, I thought we were free from incessant polls, but I was wrong. Mitt Romney is history, but now we're deluged with polls about gun control, gay marriage, and--horrors--the 2016 presidential election. Every public event, trend, and controversy floats in a sea of public opinion, as represented by the polls. And the polls not only reflect what we think, they arguably shape what we do. Most recently, the surge of public support for gay marriage and the retreat of public support for gun control have affected politicians' actions regarding each cause.

That said, it's better to get a handle on all this information rather than hide from it. This isn't easy because there are so many polls. Most of the leading print, broadcast, and online media producers commission or conduct polls. Legions of other media companies, government bodies, businesses, and organizations do the same. Many of these polling results are widely distributed, so we have a big case of information overload.

Aggregating the Polls

One aggregator does a great job of getting a handle on all this information: PollingReport.com (PR; pollingreport.com). PR organizes recent and retrospective polling data from dozens of prominent pollsters that cover top political, economic, business, and social issues. PR, which is a free public website, is produced by The Polling Report, a subscription publication that has been distributing polling information and analysis since 1985. There is also a subscription service that has additional content, including state polls.

PR aggregates an A list of pollsters, including familiar and respected names such as CNN; Gallup, Inc.; Harris Interactive, Inc.; The New York Times, Pew Research Center, Quinnipiac University, Roper Center, and The Wall Street Journal. The collection is both current and deep; the most recently released polling data are available for many subjects, and there are data dating from 1998. For most topics, PR presents polls from multiple sources, which enriches its analytical and research value. PR concentrates on polls that represent U.S. public opinion. (For worldwide polls, check out worldpublicopinion.org.)

PR covers a broad range of subjects that are divided into the following three categories: Politics and Policy, Business and Economy, and American Scene:

* Politics and Policy: This is PR's biggest section. It covers national politics extensively (elections, the president, Congress, the Supreme Court) as well as the day's principal policy issues: foreign affairs, gun control, immigration, healthcare, and many others.

* Business and Economy: This section has poll results on economic issues such as regulation, taxes, budgets, consumer confidence, trade, and workplace issues.

* American Scene: This covers a wide range of social and cultural topics, including science, technology, religion, entertainment, and sports.

PR can be browsed with a multilevel classification based on the three broad categories previously listed, but its search capability is regrettably limited. There is only a basic

search, without options to search by polling organization, date, and so forth. Search results are displayed in relevance order, without a data sort option. The site is satisfactorily intuitive, and there is a modest ad presence, which is reasonable considering how much high-value content PR provides for free.

A Sample of Worldwide Polls

The PR polls concentrate on surveys taken of Americans, but polling is done on a worldwide scale, of course. A modest sample of international polling data is available from WorldPublicOpinion.org (WPO). An international consortium of research centers that conducts its own polls and gathers polling data from other organizations, WPO covers broad topics of international interest, such as environment, governance, trade, security, and development. Each poll's results are presented in a brief analytical report. …

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