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Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Public Opinion Polls and Public Policy

The Atlantic Magazine Senior Editor Derek Thompson begins his Sept. 21 piece on the latest USA Today/Gallup poll on Obama’s job plan by saying: “Reading public opinion polls aren’t [sic] a good way to make public policy.”

This is not a new sentiment.  We have, in fact, been hearing these types of concerns about the dangers of using public opinion polls as a basis for policy and legislation -- phrased in many different ways -- for decades.

I have a book on my desk published way back in 1949 ("The Pollsters" by Lindsay Rogers) which promotes on its cover the fact that the book is “an acute analysis of the polls as a threat to representative government and the democratic process,” and that the book is “an indictment of the destructive influence of the polls on newspapers, legislators and the public itself.” Another book I’m looking at, published in 2002 ("Mobocracy" by Matthew Robinson), claims to point out “how the media’s obsession with polling twists the news, alters elections and undermines democracy.”

In fact, before either of these books was published, Dr. George Gallup, in his book "A Guide to Public Opinion Polls" (1944), found it necessary even at that early date in the development of polling to respond to the question "Won't the country suffer when its leaders begin to pay a lot of attention to public opinion polls?" I've always liked Dr. Gallup's answer: "The answer to the question posed above, then, is not that the country will suffer when its leaders begin to pay a lot of attnetion to public opinion polls. The country will suffer when its leaders ignore, or guess about the public's views and make wrong estimates of their knowledge."

And, when we check in with the public itself, we find substantial support for the idea that leaders/representatives should in fact be paying close attention to polls.

New Gallup polling, which I’ll be discussing in detail at on Friday, shows that substantial majorities of Americans think the nation would be better off if leaders followed the results of public opinion and polls more closely. And the public, as it has for years now, has more confidence in the average people of this country to “make judgments under our democratic system about the issues facing our country” than they do in the legislative branch, the executive branch, the Judicial branch, or in the men and women in political life in this country who either hold or are running for public office.

Americans, it would seem, think that reading polls is an excellent way to make public policy, since polls are nothing more than the collected attitudes and opinions of the average citizens of this country. At a time when the public’s confidence in the elected representatives themselves is at an all-time low, it seems that paying more attention to the distilled wisdom of the average people whom these representatives are elected to represent makes sense. Therefore, the inescapable conclusion is that Americans want the men and women they send off to Washington to increase their efforts to follow what Americans back home think should be done. And of course, the best way to assess this is through polls.

Speaking of paying attention to polls, President Obama’s Senior Campaign Strategist David Axelrod wrote a widely discussed memo to “Sunday Show Producers” a couple of days ago, mainly focusing on what he considered to be misinterpretation of where President Obama and his re-election chances stand at the moment.

I’m not a Sunday Show Producer, so I didn’t get a copy directly from Axelrod, but the memo was published by Ben Smith of Politico.

Axelrod’s major thrust is to combat the general conclusion reached by various analysts and commentators that Obama is in trouble at the moment. This type of effort on behalf of a campaign staff is not unusual. This is now the sixth presidential election I’ve been monitoring at Gallup, and I can say that those candidates on the negative side of poll results almost inevitably attempt to challenge them and to argue that their candidate is still viable. That often involves use of the phrase “The only poll that counts is on Election Day,” but sometimes involves more complex scrutiny and re-interpretation of poll results. Sometimes this scrutiny and re-interpretation is warranted, of course. I’ve certainly learned over the years than nothing in politics and polling is black and white.  There is almost always some room for interpretation in the process of figuring out exactly where the public stands on candidate or on policy issues. 

With all of that said, here is one of Axelrod’s comments that deals directly with policy matters.

Public polling released this week makes clear that Americans strongly agree with the President’s plan to create jobs and provide economic security for the middle class and believe that leaders in both parties should move quickly to pass the American Jobs Act.

The main issue here is the validity of Axelrod’s emphasis on the “strongly” part of the assertion, along with the “move quickly.”

Gallup’s polling of Sept. 12-13, released last week, showed that the plurality of Americans favor passage of a jobs bill plan similar to the one Obama has proposed, by a 13-percentage-point margin. This is and of itself doesn’t suggest that the public “strongly” agrees with the president’s plan, nor that leaders in both parties should move quickly to pass it. But it does show more support than opposition (as does this CNN poll).

Our just released USA Today/Gallup poll from Sept. 15-18 shows substantial support for five specific proposals included in the jobs bill, and also significant support for two methods for paying for the jobs bill (higher taxes on richer Americans and closing corporate loopholes). A majority of Americans agree that the jobs bill will help create jobs and help the economy at least “a little,” although only about 3 in 10 say that it will help those situations “a lot.”

Certainly then, Axelrod is generally in the right direction in his comments about his boss’ jobs bill -- but I don’t see direct evidence in our polling that the public believes that leaders in both parties should “move quickly” to pass the Jobs Act.

More generally, there is substantial evidence that creating jobs is the number one priority of the American public.  In this sense, the president is focusing on the right issue -- as of course, are most of the Republican candidates, albeit with different pathways to a jobs solution in mind.  Keep tuned for Gallup CEO Jim Clifton's new book on this issue, The Coming Jobs War


Mike said...
September 22, 2011 at 9:53 AM  

While I agree that national polls such as those done by Gallup should be part of the political decisionmaking process, I think that most politicians have a more fine-grained view of who's opinion counts. If poll results were reported by congressional districts then I think you'd see a very heavy use of polls, since the information is very relevant. National polls seem to be only marginally helpful for the elected official who wants to be re-elected by their constituents.

Also, as you have pointed out in other pieces,polling data can be contradictory or show that the public wants to "have its cake and eat it too", which implies that any mature decisionmaking by politicians will result in an angry public.

However, with the caveat above, I think polls provide great supplemental data for decisionmaking.

lpaulson said...
September 22, 2011 at 10:55 PM  

While "Reading public opinion polls aren’t [sic] a good way to make public policy.” is a valid point, polling does specifically keep the public involved.
Polling, in my opinion helps give officials tips on how Americans feel about a certain topic. By continuosly questioning how Americans feel, politicians are able to get a clear idea of what they can do to aid their constituants.

Anonymous said...
September 22, 2011 at 11:56 PM  

In the case of jobs plan, I don't believe public opinion and polls should be used because of the fact of how latent of an opinion it is to most people who are employed. Band wagoning is what causes people to vote for it without realizing what a financial strain it could put on the economy and raises taxes for the hard working employed. That doesn't cover the fact that most people today under the age of at least 40 are politically ignorant and vote with majority without thought of it's consequence

Anonymous said...
September 23, 2011 at 1:49 AM  

If Congress is meant to represent the people of the United States, should representatives pay close attention to these public opinion polls?
I think yes to an extent. There has to be a judgment call on the representatives' side, between what the public wants and what they believe is best for the public.

Anonymous said...
September 23, 2011 at 1:58 AM  

Though reading the public opinion polls aren't a good way to make public policy, using the information from the polls could greatly benefit deciding which direction to take.
Government leaders want to do what's best for the people and what they want, so considering their opinions is an important and great way to involve the public in government. Of course, leaders have to be careful when looking at the data because polling is very tricky and never black and white.

david meadows of frayser said...
December 4, 2011 at 9:05 PM  

I have been wondering about how low will public opinion be allowed to sink before power is seized by one group or another?

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