Polls in perspective

Political candidates are fond of saying, "The only poll that counts is the one on election days." If that were true, there would be little reason for candidates, the news media, and voters to devote so much time and attention -- not to mention money -- to the plethora of public opinion polls which purport to tell Americans what they are thinking. Although polls, which at times can make fascinating reading, have become ingrained in the US political process, the undue emphasis given their findings in an election year tends to influence and perhaps even distort the decisionmaking process. And for that reason, public and politicians alike ought to keep a proper perspective on opinion polls.

One of the foremost dangers of the current preoccupation with polls is that candidates for public office are not beyond using poll results to shape their positions on issues, thereby acceding to what is popular rather than what is right or best for the country. Most voters no doubt support candidates on the basis of their backgrounds and qualifications, and recent speculation in the press may tend to exaggerate the number of voters who base their decisions on "going with the winner." Nonetheless, a certain percentage of voters may "run with the pack" and vote for the candidate ahead in the polls.

Pollsters readily concede that the wording of questions can dramatically alter the public's response to issues. This not only balance their questions and make them as impartial as possible. It makes it incumbert upon anyone analyzing poll results to study closely the questions asked and the manner in which answers were solicited.

One pollster notes, too, that opinion samplings have a tendency to focus on "simplistic solutions" to complex problems, such as how to curb inflation. "You try not to ask difficult questions of amateurs," he explains. Therefore, when polls consistently show a large majority of Americans in support of wage and price controls, for instance, the question that must be asked is whether the respondents understood the complexity of the problem or what other options there are. (Even economists may have a hard time sorting out answers to that question.)

Another point worth remembering is that pollsters do not claim that their surveys represents anything more than a "snapshot" of the public in the process of making up its mind at any particular time. They stress that poll findings in March may offer little insight into the outcome of next November's voting. And how quickly such a "snapshot" can become dated was evident in the New Hampshire Republican primary, when polls taken only days before showed George Bush and Ronald Reagan running neck and neck. A sudden shift in sentiment widely attributed to a last-minute debate debacle, gave Reagan a wide margin of victory.

In short, the momentary glimpses of the public's attitudes and responses to candidates provided by opinion polls can be useful and even entertaining. But the depth and scope of what they show ought not to be exaggerated.

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