Public Opinion

What Do Political Polls Really Accomplish?

Dec 23 '11

This is a guest post from Lawrence Jacobs, who is the Mondale Chair at the University of Minnesota and the author with Robert Shapiro of Politicians Don’t Pander: Political Manipulation and the Loss of Democratic Responsiveness, among other books.

One of the odd paradoxes of American politics is that political polling is soaring as responsiveness to popular opinion is in decline. Roger Simon’s missive flagged non-existent problems with surveys, as many have noted, and pulled a Bill Buckner on a serious problem that does exist: the impact of polls on American politics.

Simon reports that “polling drives our political process” and that it is “changing the prism through which the media — both mainstream and social — see events, which changes the national conversation. You can challenge the accuracy of polls. But you can’t challenge their influence.”

That’s a serious point but Simon flubs it.

The public spotlight is, naturally enough, on the polls that we see but there is an enormous polling operation behind the scenes that is funded by and for politicians, including officeholders and candidates. In the 1960s, the private polls that politicians commissioned were used to identify policies favored by most Americans but an increasingly sophisticated operation started to develop in the 1970s to drive public perceptions and emotions.

Although polls are (mistakenly) equated with tailoring policy to majority opinion, private surveys are primarily geared today to manipulating public opinion – not responding to it. Research that I have conducted with Robert Shapiro and James Druckman show that the particular words that prominent politicians use in high-profile and momentous settings are often researched and crafted in order to produce particular reactions.

Simon’s screed strikes a – glancing – blow at this pattern of polling polluting our political process and distorting serious policy debates. What Simon misses, however, are the net effects of dueling policy and election campaigns. Fashioning polls to drive messages and manipulate Americans and reporters is one thing.  Producing the desired outcome is an entirely different matter.

I suspect that we will find buried in the Bush presidential papers – as we did in Lyndon Johnson’s – elaborate plans to boost public support for invading Iraq in 2003. It “succeeded” for a short period and then public opposition returned and intensified, contributing to Bush’s dreary standing by the end of this as one of our most unpopular modern presidents.

Mitt Romney may well be crafting his positions and messages to the latest polls of Republicans primary voters and caucus goers. But a career of polling-crafting has produced a zig-zagging career over the past several decades that has cratered his reputation for conviction.

And, of course, private polls are not monopolized by any one candidate, party, or perspective. Unlike the 1960s and 1970s when Gallup and Harris monopolized polling and were successfully played by politicians, major politicians today have their own polls to devise counter-strategies and all of us have ready access to numerous private polls.

No one set of polls drives how Americans think nor how “the media” reports on politics. Neither does a single politician reap a unique advantage from polling. The signal is too diffuse.

The overall effects of polling are often neutralized in the cacophony of private and public surveys and the swirl of other media and campaign tactics. There are tremendous problems with American politics today; polls are not the cause.