THE PLANK JULY 16, 2009
Ed Kilgore is managing editor of The Democratic Strategist, a senior fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute, and a frequent contributor to a variety of political journals.
One of the hardiest lines of argument in American politics, going back for decades now, is that public opinion research, or more colloquially, "the polls," are a threat to good government, accountability, principled leadership, or even democracy itself. Few insults carry as much wallop as the claim that a politician or a political party is "poll-driven." And in sharp distinction from most anti-information campaigns in public life, hostility to polls is not a populist preoccupation, but an elite phenomenon.
Last week Conor Clarke offered a vintage summary of the no-polls position at The Atlantic Monthly. Clarke's fundamental contention is this:
News organizations are supposed to provide information that holds government accountable and helps the citizenry make informed decisions on Election Day. Polls turn that mission on its head: they inform people and government of what the people already think. It's time to do away with them.
Note Clarke's planted axiom about the purpose of "news" as a one-way transmittal belt of information to the citizenry. Under this construction, government feedback from the public is limited to the "informed decisions" made on election day. This is not terribly different from George W. Bush's taunting remark in 2005 that he didn't need to pay attention to critics of his administration because he had already faced his "accountability moment" in November of 2004.
Putting that dubious idea aside, Clarke goes on to make three more specific arguments for "getting rid of polls:" they reinforce the "tyranny of the majority; they misstate actual public preferences (particularly when, as in the case of polling on "cap and trade" proposals; they public has no idea what they are being asked about); and they influence public opinion as much as they reflect it.
In a response to Clarke at the academic site The Monkey Cage, John Sides goes through these three arguments methodically, and doesn't leave a lot standing. He is particularly acerbic about the argument that polls misstate actual public opinion:
[P]eople tell pollsters one thing, but then do another. Sure: some people do, sometimes. Some say they go to church, and don't. Some say they voted, and didn't. All that tells us is to be cautious in interpreting polls....
So what do we do? We triangulate using different polls, perhaps taken at different points or with different question wordings. We supplement polls with other data - such as voter files or aggregate turnout statistics. Polls can tell us some things that other data cannot, and vice versa.
In this response Sides hits on the real problem with poll-haters: the idea that suppressing or delegitimizing one form of information (and that's all polls are, after all) will somehow create a data-free political realm in which "pure" or "real" or "principled" decisions are made. Willful ignorance will somehow guarantee honor.
As Sides suggests, the real problem isn't polling, but how the information derived from polling is interpreted and combined with other data--from election returns to weekly and monthly economic indicators--to influence political behavior. And that's true of the variety of polls themselves. We're all tempted to cite poll results that favor our predetermined positions. But the use of questionable polls for purposes of spin (e.g., the ever-increasing dependence of conservatives on Rasmussen's outlier issue polling) is, as Sides says, an issue of interpretation rather than of some inherent flaw in polling:
Clarke is right about this: we are awash in polls. The imperative for journalists and others is to become more discerning interpreters. The imperative for citizens is to become more discerning consumers. When conducted and interpreted intelligently, we learn much more from polls than we would otherwise. And our politics is better for it.
So instead of fighting against the dissemination of polls like Odysseus lashing himself to the mast to keep himself from heeding the Sirens, political observers would be better advised to listen more carefully and process the information more thoughtfully. The desire for less information is a habit no one as smart as Conor Clarke should ever indulge.