THE ELUSIVE PULSE OF DEMOCRACY
GEORGE GALLUP'S enthusiasm for scientific polling was not that it could predict elections, but that it could be used to monitor the pulse of democracy. "In a democratic society," he wrote, "the views of the majority must be regarded as the ultimate tribunal for social and political issues." And public opinion polls were the new instrument that would inform politicians what those views were. Preelection polls were important, he argued, only because their results could be checked against the reality of elections. If polls were reasonably accurate in that setting, people would have faith in them when it came to public issues as well. For "polls on issues are even more likely to hit the bull's eye." But in the half century since he wrote those words, research on the polling enterprise has revealed a much less optimistic picture. The views that people express in polls are very much influenced by the polling process itself, by the way questions are worded, their location in the interview, and the characteristics of interviewers. The pulse of democracy, it turns out, is much more elusive than Gallup had surmised.
Almost from the beginning of his work with polls, Gallup experimented with the way questions were worded and with their placement in the questionnaire. In 1939, he and his staff invented the "split-ballot" technique, a powerful method still widely used today, which allows a systematic comparison of two or more versions of the