This is the time of year when pols who are ahead in the polls sing their praises, and those behind in the polls poo-poo them. It’s also the season when we all wonder about whether the news media’s obsession with polls hurts our democracy.
I mostly don’t worry, and some scholarly dude at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars recently wrote a more thoughtful and well-documented defense of polling than I could. Excerpt:
“But while there may be reason to worry about the public’s political competence, a far more serious threat to democracy arises from the large disparities in income, education, and other resources needed to participate effectively in politics. Compared with most other Western democracies, the United States has a more pronounced class skew in voter turnout and other forms of political participation, with the affluent much more politically active than those who are less well off. This uneven distribution of political engagement is what makes public-opinion polls especially valuable. Far from undermining democracy, they enhance it: They make it more democratic. As Harvard political scientist Sidney Verba observed in 1995, “Surveys produce just what democracy is supposed to produce— equal representation of all citizens. The sample survey is rigorously egalitarian; it is designed so that each citizen has an equal chance to participate and an equal voice when participating.”
Well said, scholarly dude. Polls help our democracy work better, particularly between elections, when it is more difficult for elected officials to know what people think about issues. And when they survey someone other than “likely voters” or “registered voters,” pollsters give a rare voice to the electorally voiceless.
Yes, polls are imperfect, and are oft abused by end users. Yes, leaders sometimes need to ignore polls, and try to lead public opinion when the public is ill-informed or wrong.
But consider the alternatives the news media faces. Given the choice between the news media portraying public opinion by focusing on a) a small number of ad hoc “man-on-the-street” interviews; b) dualing politicians’ self-serving claims about public opinion; c) easily manipulated website-based polls of non-random samples of viewers or readers; or d) a survey done by a reputable and objective pollster using transparent, state-of-the-art methods and technology, I’ll take the survey.
But, just to be fair and present the other side, Tina Fey, or Sara Palin, I can’t remember which, recently made the counter-argument:
“You know, I don’t worry about the polls. Polls are just a fancy way of systematically predictin’ what’s goin’ to happen.”