In a provocative column posted at Atlantic Online three weeks ago, Conor Clarke argued that it is "time to do away with polls." His case: Polls are often "wrong," "constant polling uncomfortably expands the domain of democracy," and perhaps most important, they too often "affect future polls and behavior."
I did not rush to respond, for reasons -- to quote blogger Ryan Sager -- "ranging from First Amendment to It's Not Going to Happen." But thankfully, George Washington University political science professor John Sides produced a must-read, point-by-point rebuttal of Clarke's argument.
But then Clarke responded to Sides' commentary with a challenge to produce "the affirmative case for polls.... What good reason do we have (besides morbid curiosity) to consume polls we see in the morning's paper? What value is there in letting the public know what the public already thinks?"
Clarke is certainly not the first to question the value of public opinion polls. As Ed Kilgore, managing editor of The Democratic Strategist, put it in his own response to Clarke, the notion that "'the polls' are a threat to good government, accountability, principled leadership, or even democracy itself" is "one of the hardiest lines of argument in American politics."
Fortunately, Sides stepped forward once again to make the positive case for polls. But since Clarke's challenge is so fundamental, I thought it worthwhile to add my own two cents' worth.
To Clarke, public opinion is best expressed in our representative democracy through elections, held at regular intervals that give politicians or policies the chance "to succeed or fail within reasonable time constraints." No quarrel there. His view reflects the intent of the framers of our Constitution and their mix of faith and skepticism in the whims of the public (see James Madison, The Federalist No. 10).
What worries Clarke is the notion that "constant polling" subverts this process: It "disturbs the balance between democratic legitimacy and democratic effectiveness." But is that the best conception of the ultimate utility of public opinion polling?
True, Clarke's fear resembles the future envisioned by polling pioneer George Gallup in his 1940 book written with Saul Rae, The Pulse of Democracy. As commentator Ben Wattenberg later put it, Gallup envisioned a "utopian" potential in which polling would become "the national equivalent of the New England town meeting."
But I think that vision misconceives the reality of polling today and -- more importantly -- the best affirmative case for its practice.
Let's take a step back and think about what public opinion is. The renowned political scientist V.O. Key studied this question long and hard, and concluded that even the least democratic governments take public opinion into account. In his 1961 work, Public Opinion and American Democracy, he offered this definition now well known to students of political science:
"'Public Opinion' in this discussion may simply be taken to mean those opinions held by private persons which governments find it prudent to heed. Governments may be compelled toward action or inaction by such opinion; in other instances they may ignore it, perhaps at their peril; they may attempt to alter it; or they may divert or pacify it."
Put another way, elected officials are self-interested. They will "heed" public opinion when they see the potential for reward or peril at the next election.
Those who wish to influence policy will want to appeal to the political instincts of elected officials and will thus make arguments on the basis of the same potential electoral reward or peril.
So though we might wish for what Kilgore calls a "data-free political realm in which 'pure' or 'real' or 'principled' decisions are made," that is not about to happen. And as long as elected officials are going to take public opinion into account, I would rather have them base their conclusions on data from representative samples and fairly conceived questions.
But what about all the inconsistency in polling and the potential for "wrong" results? They suggest, I would argue, that we are wrong to conceive of each poll question as an infallible miniature "town hall meeting." We can understand and use polling best when we consider its limitations.
Sides reminds us of the admonition from the highly regarded survey scientist Howard Schuman not to "take too literally" the responses of poll questions, since they do not come to us directly but "are also shaped by the questions we ask."
Yes, pollsters often ask about complex public policy issues on which most Americans are poorly informed. Yes, the reactions gleaned from these questions can be inconsistent, as they reflect opinions that Key thought of as "latent." But given those tendencies, we are better off having too many polls rather than too few. They allow us to, as Sides puts it, "triangulate using different polls, perhaps taken at different points or with different question wordings."
So polls fulfill an important function, but making sense of their sometimes conflicting, sometimes misleading results comes with an obligation that Sides describes perfectly:
"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."