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Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Contradictory Poll Results? What a Great Opportunity!

The premise under which I operate (and the same for our work here at Gallup more generally) is that public opinion is massively important. And that it should be paid close attention to.

But not everyone agrees.

For example, there is the “confused” argument. Politico writer Andie Coller penned a piece on Monday reusing the well-worn premise that public opinion is contradictory and confused, and therefore difficult to understand and make use of. In this instance, Coller is using the example of research on health care reform. Her title “Health Care Polls Leave Pols Dizzy” conveys her premise (although this conclusion as represented in the title is conjectural; other than a reference to Nancy Pelosi not liking the wording of a question on the public option in one poll, there are no actual politicians quoted in the piece who, in fact, say that they are left dizzy by health care polls.)

Coller’s piece builds off the not-shocking finding that the results of the wide variety of recent polls on health care reform can often be difficult to make sense of. She calls these results a “...dizzying deluge of hard-to-reconcile data”. She then goes on to list examples wherein health care polls seem to produce contradictory results.

This is not a new observation. In fact, I devoted a chapter of my book Polling Matters to the issue of interpreting what appear to be conflicting or confusing estimates of public opinion on key issues.

The key is to flip the premise. It isn’t that the public is “confused,” but that researchers have not taken the time to examine carefully the context and meaning of responses to questions that ask about different aspects of complex issues.

The idea is to learn from the data rather than to dismiss the data (much like an evidence-based analysis which tries to make sense out of differing results in tests of medical procedures and drugs.) If people react differently to differently worded questions about aspects of health care reform, as they often do, then the question is “why?” What is the wording or premise of specific questions that are related to differential patterns of answers? Putting it all together advances understanding and advances the ball down the field. That’s how science operates.

For example, a recent CBS News/New York Times poll found majority support for a public option explained as a "government-administered health insurance plan -- something like the Medicare coverage that people 65 and older get". A contemporaneous NBC News/Wall Street Jounal poll found less than majority support for a public option explained as "a public health care plan administered by the federal government..."

The important issue: why the difference?

Well, in part, we can hypothesize that Americans like the idea of a health insurance plan more than a health care plan. And in part, we can hypothesize that reminding Americans that the plan would be similar to the familiar Medicare system makes them more positive. These differences can be tested in controlled experiments. But drilling down to exactly what's behind the different reactions expands our knowledge about American public opinion on this crucial topic. We certainly don't want to throw both poll results out the window because on first glance they appear contradictory. Differences in science lead to discoveries. Scientists don’t dismiss anomalies but analyze them.

(And not all research on health care reform is contradictory. When one looks at poll questions asking if Americans favor or oppose a new health care reform law, Obama approval on health care, Obama versus Republicans on health care, personal satisfaction with current health care, one is struck by the consistency of the findings rather than any differences.)

Another way to handle public opinion on complex answers is to advance the “dismiss it” argument.

I recently heard from a thoughtful and highly engaged entrepreneur who had very strong views on health care reform. When advised (by me!) that the public had different views, he simply said that the public was wrong. And dismissed the public’s views as ill-informed and poorly reasoned.
This type of elitist argument has been used against public opinion for many years. If the public disagrees with one’s premise or one’s conclusion, then one dismisses the public. In this particular instance, the entrepreneur was arguing that Americans have lousy health care, particularly in comparison to health care in many European nations. Informed that the significant majority of Americans say they are satisfied with their health care, the entrepreneur advanced the argument that the public in fact stupidly didn’t realize that their health care wasn’t that good. They just didn’t know any better.


My argument is that there is little dispute of the social fact that Americans are satisfied with their health care. That has been well established. One can argue that Americans' consciousness should be raised to the point where they realize that there are ways to improve their health care along the models of select European countries. But one should not dismiss the basics of public opinion before doing so.

Both the “confused” and the “ill-informed” approach to public opinion are short-sighted. And deflect us from the wonderful opportunity to take advantage of the wisdom of average people when their opinions are pooled together.

Friday, September 25, 2009

The People's View on Healthcare Costs

The Senate, House, and White House continue to toil over the structure and content of a new healthcare bill.

As a reminder, three major pivot points for the American public appear to be covering the uninsured (which the public is generally behind, although at a declining rate; more on that in my next post), the extent of government involvement in healthcare (something a significant segment of the public is quite worried about), and healthcare costs (which a significant segment of the public is quite worried about).

Indeed, as my colleague Lydia Saad has recently reviewed, Americans consider cost to be the biggest problem with healthcare in the U.S. today.

When people say "costs," it isn’t precisely clear if they mean costs to them personally -- or overall costs to provide healthcare in the country more broadly. Of course, both of these are higher interrelated. If overall expenditures on healthcare go down, then the cost to individuals eventually should go down as well. So what matters is that Americans are, broadly speaking, worried about the costs of healthcare.

(By the way, check out Geoff Colvin’s recent, perspicacious column in Fortune. Colvin notes that when people talk about the rising costs of healthcare, they are actually talking about rising revenues for the healthcare industry. For most industries, that would be good news. In other words, lowering the total amount of money spent on healthcare in this country means that somebody’s revenues are going to be negatively and adversely affected. These huge revenue streams, of course, are why we have so much intense lobbying and wrangling over healthcare.)

Back to costs. I was reminded of what's involved in cutting costs Friday when I listened to an interesting presentation by Ben Leedle, the CEO of Healthways. Healthways is the innovative company with whom Gallup partners in the development and tracking of the Gallup-Healthways Well-Being Index. Ben pointed out that about 4% of healthcare expenditures in the U.S. are related to healthy behavior and over 80% to treatment. But, and this is a big "but", it can be estimated that 50% of overall health can be positively affected by healthy behaviors, and only 10% by treatment. In other words, if the purpose of spending money on healthcare is to improve people’s health, then the system seems to have it quite backwards. Spending huge amounts on treatment isn’t going to in and of itself transform the country into a much more healthy nation. Focusing on healthy behaviors can have that effect.

So, in review. For those who, even as we speak, are working diligently on Capitol Hill to craft new healthcare legislation, some of the questions from a skeptical public are going to center on just how the new reform legislation is really going to lower healthcare costs. And research suggests that a good part of this could mean helping Americans engage in healthier behaviors, rather than just trying to shave costs here and there in terms of treatment. To what extent the legislation coming out of Washington will focus on this is unknown. But indications at this point are that it's not going to be a big part of any new bill.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Memo re: Afghanistan

Keeping readers and hopefully our elected leaders up-to-date on the views of the American people -- this time on Afghanistan.

The assumption seems to be that support for Afghanistan is eroding. E.g., the recent Washington Post article by Rajiv Chandrasekaran and Karen DeYoung stating that one reason why President Obama is reexamining his war strategy about Afghanistan is -- “...erosion in support for the war effort among...the American public.”

Well, available evidence does suggest that support has eroded -- particularly if one adopts a long time frame.

Take Gallup’s classic “mistake” measure. I say "classic" because it’s a question Gallup has been asking about wars going back to Korea. Current wording: “Thinking now about U.S. military action in Afghanistan that began in October 2001: Do you think the United States made a mistake in sending military forces to Afghanistan, or not?”

Only 9% of Americans in November 2001 said it was a mistake to have become involved in Iraq -- just after the initial incursion there. This was just a couple of months after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. Support for doing something -- anything -- to strike back at the terrorists was very high.

By 2004 the “mistake” measure for Afghanistan was up to 25%. In August of last year, it was up to 34%. This year there was a drop off just after Obama took office in January, but the mistake percentage jumped back to an average of 38% in three separate 2009 surveys through early September. Not a huge uptick in negativity, but some.

(Note that a majority in the Gallup surveys still say that it was not a mistake to have become involved.)

Other polling using different measures also shows erosion on public support, albeit at higher levels. A CNN/ORC poll shows 58% opposed when asked “Do you favor or oppose the U.S. war in Afghanistan?” Last year at about this time, 46% opposed.

A new Fox News/Opinion Dynamics poll asks “Do you support or oppose the U.S. war in Afghanistan?” The results: 46% support, 45% oppose. No trend using this exact wording.

[By the way, look at the small difference in the wording of the two CNN and Fox poll questions. CNN asks “favor or oppose”. Fox asks “support or oppose”. The “support” wording gets higher positive responses than the “favor” wording. There are other differences between the polls. But it may be that Americans are more willing to say they “support” the war than they are to say “favor” the war.]

An ABC News/Washington Post poll used different wording still and found the following: 51% say that the war was not “worth fighting”. That’s up from all previous ABC News/Washington Post measures.

So -- to repeat -- there is some evidence that positive reactions to the war are eroding.

This is not surprising. It's similar to the trajectory of attitudes re Iraq. Gallup’s “mistake to have gone into Iraq” measure went from 23% in March 2003 to an all-time high of 63% last year. And it remained at 58% this summer, even though Americans are more positive about how things are going in Iraq.

Now. About the future. The big news is the strong possibility that President Obama will be asked to send more troops to Afghanistan. This is a major decision point for Obama.

What’s the advice from the American people? We’ll have the most up-to-date Gallup information on Thursday, summarizing a key question we are asking even as we speak about an increased troop presence in Afghanistan. . But based on what we know at the moment, I would tell the president that considerably less than a majority of Americans support the idea of sending in more troops.

Fox News/Opinion Dynamics asked “Do you support or oppose sending additional U.S. troops to Afghanistan?” The answer? 41% support, 50% oppose. An Ipsos/McClatchy poll asked: “Do you favor, or oppose, sending additional combat troops to Afghanistan?” The results? 35% favor, 56% oppose. [Note again that Fox asks about “support” as opposed to “favor”. Also, the Ipsos/McClatchy poll asked about “combat” troops. ]

CBS News asked a three-part question a few weeks ago: "From what you have seen or heard about the situation in Afghanistan, what should the United States do now? Should the U.S. increase the number of U.S. troops in Afghanistan, keep the same number of U.S. troops in Afghanistan as there are now, or decrease the number of troops in Afghanistan?" The results? Just 25% want an increase, with 41% decrease, and 23% stay the same. That was in late August. ABC News/Washington Post found about the same using a similar wording in mid-August.

So none of the available data from the last couple of months suggests that the majority of the public -- if there were a referendum -- would favor sending more troops to Afghanistan. Support ranges anywhere from 24% to 41%.

Our Gallup question now in the field is phrased this way: “Would you favor or oppose a decision by President Obama to send more U.S. troops to Afghanistan?” This is more of a political, practical question. Obama is going to have to make the decision on sending more troops. Our measure provides a gauge on how that decision is likely to go down if, in fact, he decides to send more. Details here on Thursday.

Friday, September 18, 2009

Fundamental Differences in the Role of Government

As I look at the ever-expanding pile of survey research on healthcare reform, I keep coming back to the central issue of Americans’ views on the role of government in society.

My colleague Jeff Jones recently reviewed open-ended explanations given by Americans who oppose healthcare reform. This involves about half of all Americans. Many of the explanations for this opposition focus on worries about the expanded role of government. And government’s role if a sweeping new healthcare reform bill is passed,

As I wrote here, some of this is concern no doubt reflects worries about the government’s competence; i.e., the government’s ability to manage/head up/direct healthcare changes.

But some is obviously due to philosophic concerns -- views of what the optimal role of government is in a society.

Consider some of this recent research:



  • A majority of Americans say that individuals themselves, rather than government, should be responsible for assuring that everyone has health insurance.

  • A majority of Americans say that government is trying to do too much that should be left to businesses and individuals. This is now as high as it has been in more than a decade.

  • More Americans say that there is too much regulation of business than say it’s about right or say there is too little regulation. This is as high as it has been in more than a decade.

  • A majority of Americans say that government has too much power. (Check gallup.com on Monday for more detail on these measures.)


A second -- and not shocking -- finding is a major bifurcation in these attitudes by party. Rank-and-file Democrats and Republicans are basically mirror opposites of one another when it comes to almost any of these questions we ask about government. Democrats generally are willing to accept that idea that government has power, gets involved in society, takes responsibility for people, and helps fix problems. Republicans aren’t.



This chart reflects these stark differences for one specific trade-off question on healthcare:





Some of the administration’s efforts to address concerns about government's role have focused on the particular individual's self-interest. The administration has taken pains to argue that new healthcare law wouldn’t mandate government involvement for any particular individual, that individuals do not need to change their health insurance, and that no one will be forced to choose a government run plan. (Hence, the words "public option”).

But the data suggest that some Americans are worried about the government on more philosophic grounds -- that heavy duty government involvement in massive changes in the healthcare system simply aren’t something the government should be doing. Again, the objections don't necessarily just reflect personal concern that the government will force one to choose a particular type of health coverage or to make specific health decisions. They also appear to include worries about the broad role that government should play in attempting to solve society's problems.

The healthcare reform debate is thus bringing our attention again to this long-standing (perhaps even universal) issue of the optimal role of government in society. For which there is, of course, no easy resolution.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Update: Advice to Congress From the People

Congress is hard at work trying to craft healthcare reform legislation. Simultaneously, we at Gallup are hard at work monitoring the attitudes and wisdom of the people on the issue of healthcare reform. I hope the twain shall meet.

Some people have different views. Chris Frates at Politico quotes Democratic lobbyist Andy Rosenberg: “The polls are relatively meaningless on this issue [healthcare reform]. I don’t think it’s that relevant to the outcome in Washington right now. I think each side has already made its decisions.”

“Each side” in this context means, of course, Democratic and Republican elected representatives. These individuals are sent to Washington to represent the wishes/interests of the people back home. I certainly hope that these representatives are not viewing the wishes of their constituencies as meaningless. It’s dangerous at any point in the process to dial out the American public.

Keep in mind that lobbyists representing a wide variety of business, industry, and interest groups are very, very hard at work making their views known to representatives and senators at every minute of every day as this process unfolds. I’m here to argue that the views of the average Jane and John Doe out there across the country are just as important.

Gallup (and other firms) are, in fact, spending a lot of money and effort to assess scientifically where the public stands on healthcare reform.

Were I briefing members of Congress and the Senate (and the White House) today on exactly what their constituencies were saying, I would re-emphasize the following:

1. Opposition to new healthcare reform is not solely nor primarily focused on self-interest.

News reports keep harping on the self-interest angle. “In public, the president is working to energize his supporters and persuade those who have insurance that a health overhaul is just as vital to them as it is to those who currently aren't covered.” Or “A big impediment to support for [Obama’s] plan has been the belief by the middle-class workers who HAVE insurance that reform could only cost or hurt them." Now, the president is pushing a Treasury Department study designed to show, as WhiteHouse.gov puts it, that “Losing Insurance Can Happen to Anybody.”

This aforementioned WhiteHouse.gov blog introduced the president’s weekly radio address by saying: “The president discusses a staggering new report from the Treasury Department indicating that, under the status quo, around half of all Americans under 65 will lose their health coverage at some point over the next 10 years."

Why is the President discussing this staggering new report? Because he has been told, I assume, that it is necessary to convince the average American that healthcare will benefit them personally.

As I’ve noted, a great deal of polling shows that clear majorities of Americans believe that healthcare reform will either not improve their personal situation or make it worse. Gallup has new data to this effect to be released shortly. Plus, check here and here.

One might assume from the above discussion that Americans opposed to healthcare reform feel negatively about it because they simply don’t see how it would benefit them personally.

Not so.

We went right to the source in our weekend poll.

We asked Americans who opposed new healthcare reform to tell us why they felt this way. In their own words. Very few mentioned anything relating -- at least directly -- to personal self-interest. The biggest reasons for opposition? Worry that there would be too much government involvement in the system. Worry that the bill was not well understood or that the respondent didn’t see how it would work. Worry that the bill would increase costs. (Gallup will have more on these results Wednesday morning at Gallup.com.)

It is also useful to keep in mind that about half of Americans want their representative in Congress to vote for a new healthcare bill. What do we learn from the reasons why they support a new bill? A lot of eleemosynary sentiment. Americans who support the bill say that “people need health insurance,” “there are too many uninsured,” “moral responsibility to provide insurance,” “to help the poor,” “to health senior citizens,” and “to help make healthcare more affordable.”

In other words, people support the bill, in part, because it will help others. Not because it is in their self-interest.

2. The people are just not convinced that healthcare reform can be accomplished without increased costs.

Six out of 10 in Gallup’s new poll say that President Obama cannot expand coverage to nearly all Americans without raising taxes on the middle class or lowering the quality of healthcare. Less than half are confident that President Obama’s healthcare plan can be paid for through cost savings in Medicare and other parts of the existing healthcare system. A third of Americans say that a new healthcare bill would make the overall costs of healthcare in the U.S. get better. The rest say it would have no effect or would actually make the overall costs worse.

Bottom line input from the people to Congress and the Senate on healthcare reform:

  • “Explain directly to constituents why increased government intervention in the system is necessary at a time when many constituents are worried about government trying to do to much.”

  • “Explain to constituents more clearly just how healthcare reform would work.”

  • “Explain to constituents how healthcare reform would lower costs when many constituents are worried that the costs will go up.”

  • “Emphasize to constituents (a la what one president said some 28 years ago) why healthcare reform is necessary as a responsible, charitable effort from a caring people.”

Thursday, September 10, 2009

President Obama's Use of Gallup Data to Estimate the Uninsured

President Obama addressed a group of White House nurses this morning, and, in the course of his remarks, talked about the number of Americans who do not have health insurance. Noting that the Census Bureau had just come out with new data showing that "...the number of uninsured rose in 2008." The president went on to say:

"And we know from more up-to-date surveys that, since the recession intensified last September, the situation has grown worse. Over the last 12 months, it's estimated that the ranks of the uninsured have swelled by nearly 6 million people..."

Well, those "more up-to-date surveys" Obama is referring to are, in fact, Gallup's. Let me explain the origin of these estimates in some detail.

As part of our Gallup-Healthways Well-Being Index, Gallup collects data on the percentage of adults with health insurance based on responses to the question: "Do you have health insurance coverage?" We interview about 30,000 people a month, thus providing very reliable estimates.

In September 2008, the Gallup-Healthways data showed that 13.9% of adults did not have health insurance. This July, the latest data available when the White House officials made their calculations, 16.4% of adults reported having no health insurance. The difference between these two percentage estimates is 2.5%, which -- when multiplied by the estimated 230 million adults in the U.S. -- yields a difference between those two points in time of 5.75 million people. Hence the reference in the president's remarks.

Of course, President Obama's remarks included the qualifier that this was an estimate, which is an important point to remember. Even with the extremely large sample sizes involved in the Gallup-Healthways Well-Being surveys, there is some margin of error. But the comparison between the two months certainly suggests that there has been a significant increase in those without health insurance over that period of time.

One great advantage of the Gallup-Healthways daily surveys is the fact that they are about as up-to-date as possible. The president himself underscored the great value of this frequency when he mentioned his own Census Bureau's data and then moved past them to cite Gallup's "more up-to-date surveys."

To be sure, U.S. census data are in many ways definitive, gathered with meticulous care, and based on very solid research science. But it's a slow process for the most part. We are glad that Gallup is able to contribute to our understanding of what's happening in the American population by providing high frequency data on critical aspects of Americans' well-being.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

To Do List: Priorities From the Public

Congress is back from its August recess and has a long to-do list. This to-do list includes a variety of notable issues, including climate change, student loan overhaul, the Guantanamo Bay prison, and energy.

All of these are presumably important on some absolute scale and certainly to specific constituencies. But they are less important on the list of priorities to the average American, at this point, than other more pressing issues.

My colleague Jeff Jones has just run down our latest September "Most Important Problem" data -- the results of our monthly question where we ask Americans to name the most important problem facing the nation at this time.

The results run the gamut, including the very small 1% of Americans who mention each of the following as the nation’s top problem: lack of respect for each other, the judicial system, poverty and hunger, terrorism, the environment, race relations, lack of military defense, Middle Eastern conflict, foreign aid, abortion, Social Security, the energy problem, and gay rights.

As you can see, two of these issues are ones that the Congress may well attempt to address this fall: climate change and the energy situation.

But neither of these percolate to the top of the list when Americans are asked to prioritize in response to the MIP question. And issues like student loan overhaul and Guantanamo Bay don’t make it onto the list at all.

So, what is it Americans want their representatives to focus on? Translating the results of our question into direction to elected representatives, it’s the following, in order of importance:

1) Fix the economy
2) Do something about healthcare
3) Fix the jobs situation
4) Fix yourself (i.e., Congress and the poor way you govern)
5) Do something about the ballooning federal deficit

That's not to say that the other issues like energy and climate change are unimportant. Indeed, some people argue that these issues are of paramount importance in the long-run, whether or not the public realizes it.

OK. But in the short-term, Americans are quite directly giving their representatives some marching orders.

The good news is that Congress has actually been pretty much on task for much of this year. There have been dramatic efforts to address the economic situation and there's the current, intense focus on how to pass new healthcare laws. (There hasn't been a lot done about the way Congress functions, however.) The not-so-good news is that these issues continue to rank at the top of our list of problems facing the country today.

Re the economy, Congress could presumably decide that it has done all it can, and that from this point on it's the "tincture of time" that will have to do the job. Since the economy is still at the top of the list of problems facing the country (albeit at a lower level than in previous months), it's clear that Americans are still not convinced that what's been done so far is working. (Americans are worried in particular about jobs.)

The People's View on Healthcare Reform

There seems to be a fairly widely accepted assumption that Americans will support healthcare reform only if they think it benefits them personally. The underlying concept that Americans are inherently self-interested when it comes to public policy is pretty much the conventional wisdom. I.e., Americans won’t support healthcare reform until and unless they see that it benefits them personally.

Here’s how Politico put it Tuesday morning: “President Obama has a clear road map for salvaging healthcare reform: Convince skeptical Americans that a new system would actually help them, not limit their choices and care...” As Obama promises on his administration's healthreform.gov Web site: “Whether or not you have health insurance right now, the reforms we seek will bring stability and security that you don't have today."

A good deal of this “it’s in your personal self-interest” surfaced in President Obama’s speech on Wednesday night ("What this plan will do is make the insurance you have work better for you").

I’m not sure this is exactly what we derive from a study of American public opinion at this point.

We know that a majority of Americans -- in some instances a big majority -- think positively about the quality of their personal healthcare. They also think positively about their healthcare coverage. And a majority is satisfied with the amount they pay for healthcare.

Accordingly, most of the recent research I’ve examined shows that Americans do not currently believe that new healthcare reform will benefit them personally -- neither in terms of the quality of their care, nor their costs.

Staking healthcare reform on the assumption that Americans must be convinced reform will benefit them personally is, thus, a tricky proposition. First, Americans’ minds have to be changed re their current healthcare situation. Second, once that is done, Americans must be convinced that the replacement system is going to be better than the system they naively thought they liked to begin with.

Let’s change the focus for a moment. The data most certainly make it clear that Americans already have existing doubts about healthcare across the country. A significant majority say that healthcare coverage in America is only fair or poor. An even larger majority are negative about the total cost of healthcare in this country. The two most frequently given answers when Americans are asked to name the most urgent healthcare problem facing the country: access to healthcare and the cost of healthcare.

Personal healthcare situation: OK. National healthcare system: Not OK.

This is not an unusual pattern. Americans are typically more positive about their personal lives than when asked to rate the situation for all Americans across the country. But, that's the point. Taking cognizance of these patterns means that the most straightforward approach to healthcare reform may well be to focus primarily on the broad benefits for society. Not attempting to spend much time arguing that its major benefit is for the individual personally.

Which fits with the finding that a majority of Americans continue to agree that it is the government’s responsibility to see that all Americans have healthcare coverage.

There is a second challenge. Americans, as noted, are concerned about healthcare costs. Not necessarily their personal costs, but the overall costs for the system as a whole. So Americans are open to the proposal that something be done to control costs. The President is indeed arguing that a new healthcare reform law will result in lowered costs.

So far, so good. But this runs up against a big problem. Selling the public on the idea that the federal government can easily, effectively, efficiently, and promptly lower healthcare costs is out of whack with what Americans perceive as reality. Public faith in Congress and government is quite low -- on some measures historically low. New Gallup data show that Americans believe that about 50 cents out of every dollar the Federal government spends is wasted. Americans do not, therefore, naturally turn to their government when it comes to the objective of lowering costs and operating hyper-efficiently.

President Obama’s challenge is to somehow convince Americans that their federal government can, in fact, take on responsibility for the Herculean task of lowering costs. That’s quite a challenge.

I firmly believe that it makes sense to turn to the public for direction and guidance on how to proceed on policy issues. In this healthcare situation the direction from the public to their representatives appears to be two-fold:

1) Tell us how healthcare coverage can be expanded to the uninsured, a goal with which we agree in principle.
2) Tell us how the Federal government, which we perceive to be highly inefficient, is going to effectively lead the effort to lower healthcare costs.

Listening to the People

The Supreme Court and the American people as a whole are trusted about equally by the American people --significantly more so than is the case for trust accorded to the executive branch, the men and women who are in political office, and, in particular, the legislative branch. (Plus, I might add, the news media don’t generate much trust either.)

I have more to say about these distinctions at Gallup.com. But I'm paying particular attention to the key finding that the people of this country trust themselves more than they trust the men and women they send off to Washington to represent them. By quite a margin: 73% of Americans trust themselves compared with the 45% who trust elected representatives.

This distinction highlights a very important, and a very old, philosophic dilemma I discussed in depth in my book Polling Matters.

America is, of course, a representative democracy. The people have the ultimate power. But the day-to-day power is handed over to the men and women whom the people elect and send off to Washington to represent them. All of this presents the seeds of a great philosophic question. Should these representatives view themselves as delegates, sent off to strictly carry out the wishes of constituents back home? Or should they view themselves as trustees, sent off to use their best judgment, guided by their personal consciences, despite what the people back home may be thinking?

There is no easy answer to this one. I suspect most elected representatives subscribe to a “combination of ingredients” approach, wherein they purport to reflect the wishes of their constituencies, while still reserving the right to use their judgments.

But at the moment we sit in a time when the constituents back home don’t have much trust in the judgment of these delegates/trustees sent off to represent them. The constituents back home have a great deal more trust in themselves to make good decisions on the issues facing the country.

So when it comes down to it, Americans most probably tilt toward a view of their representatives as their delegates, rather than as their trustees. In other words, were I an elected representative, I would spend a great deal of time studying and paying attention to the views of average citizens.

Town halls are one way to do this, of course, as is the monitoring of mail, telephone calls, and e-mails and “walking the district” back home. But, by far, the best way to stay on top of the collective views of the American people in today’s environment is scientific random sampling survey research. Exactly what Gallup -- and this blog -- is all about.

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