Public Opinion Polling and the Future of Democracy

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  • NATIONAL CIVIC REVIEW, vol. 87, no. 1, Spring 1998 Jossey-Bass Publishers 65

    Public Opinion Polling and theF u t u re of Democracy

    Celinda Lake, Jennifer Sosin

    During the last thirty years, the use of public opinion polling in American pol-itics has exploded. Practically every day, there is a press briefing in Wa s h i n g-ton on a new poll. In nearly every contested federal campaign, the candidatesspend thousands of valuable campaign dollars on their own polls. Most of thec o u n t ry s biggest newspapers and television stations conduct polls re g u l a r l y, asdo the networks and newsmagazines.

    What does all this mean for democracy? For one thing, it starkly re v e a l stwo fundamentally differing visions of how re p resentative democracy shouldwork. In one vision, re p resentatives are elected to give direct voice to thep e o p l e s pre f e rences. In the other, re p resentatives serve more as delegatesthan re p resentatives; they are invested with the trust to exercise their ownj u d g m e n t .

    Some say that, with the proliferation of polling, we are moving moreand more toward the first vision of re p resentative democracy. By this analy-sis, elected officials are functioning increasingly as instruments of aplebiscite, responding directly to what they perceive as public opinion,using the polls to decide what to believe, what to say, and how to say it. Atthe same time, we know that voters rarely choose their re p resentatives sim-ply on the basis of issue positions. Rather, most voters choose their candi-dates by combining an inclination toward one political party or the otherwith an assessment of the individual candidates character and values.Issues may symbolize values, but few voters arrive at the polls with achecklist of litmus tests.

    This raises a question: If voters treat their re p resentatives as delegates, butif polls mean that representatives respond to the public as if they were instru-ments of a plebiscite, what are the implications for the kinds of decisions thata re made? This is the first question we explore in this essay. The second is howthis will change as polling and communications change in the twenty-first cen-tury.

    N o t e : Thanks to Joe Goode, David Mermin, Michael Perry, and Vicki Shabo for their con-tributions to this article.

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    Should Representatives Pay Attention to Public Preferences as Expressed in Public Opinion Polls?

    T h e re are plenty of arguments for a n o answer to this first question, arg u m e n t sthat good public policy is somehow compromised or undermined when re p-resentatives pay slavish attention to polls. Indeed, we frequently hear at leastfour reasons why public opinionas measured by public pollsshould notguide public policy.

    First, it is said that the public is misinformed. A classic example is theAmerican publics belief that foreign aid is a significant drain on the federalbudget, even though the true pro p o rtion is but a small fraction of federalspending. Moreover, this false impression is not without consequences, sinceit creates political pressure to reduce international spending.

    Second, say others, the public is ill informed. It is not that the public hasw ro n g i n f o rmation, they say; it is that people have too l i t t l e i n f o rmation. Indeed,t h e re is plenty of evidence that the public pays little attention to the details of pub-lic policy issues. For example, the Pew Research Center regularly runs polls onthe attention paid to major news stories, and it consistently finds that the publicpays far more attention to stories about celebrities than about public policy. InAugust 1997, for instance, 24 percent said they followed the Gianni Versace andA n d rew Cunanan story very closely, compared to 14 percent who followed thebudget debate, and just 6 percent who followed the expansion of NAT O .

    T h i rd, we hear that public opinion is easily manipulated. This critiqueemphasizes the popular medias ability to influence public opinion; indeed, therelationship between the news media and public opinion is complicated andc i rc u l a r. Clearly, because television is the dominant source of information inAmerican life, public opinion is influenced by what the news media choose toc o v e r, and how they cover it. For example, many argue that the high level ofd i s t rust toward government is fueled in part by the gotcha approach of thepost-Watergate news media. At the same time, public opinion also influencesprogramming, as television executives seek to maximize viewership.

    F o u rth, we hear that public opinion p o l l i n g is easily manipulated. This ist rue. Sophisticated consumers of public opinion polls are well aware that sam-pling methodologies, question wording, and timing can have signific a n timpacts on polling results. On top of this, even the same polling results can bei n t e r p reted in multiple ways by diff e rent observers. This leads some to arg u ethat, whatever the truth of underlying public opinion, survey re s e a rch is a poorand unreliable instrument for measuring it.

    Given these critiques, can one see public opinion polling as anything buta distorting influence on policymaking and democratic decision making? Wehave two reasons for believing that one can see it otherwise:

    1. Public opinion and the polling that captures it play a valuable role in set-ting direction and in checking political excess.

  • 2. Public opinion polling keeps elected re p resentatives, who are incre a s i n g l yisolated, more in touch with their constituencies than they would be with-out it.

    First, the public is much more sophisticated and thoughtful than manys t e reotypes suggest. Although it is true that the American electorate pays littleattention to the details of legislative choices, most voters are clear in theirminds about their priorities and their values. They then use these priorities andvalues to make choices about the elected officials they support and the issuesthey emphasize. Thus, public opinion, as expressed through polling, often pro-vides a valuable check on political excess, and it often sets direction in a waythat keeps pressure on elected representatives to accomplish larger goals.

    The Republican revolution of 1994 provides a striking example of this.The Republican majority in Congress, elected in 1994, took office with anambitious agenda, and a core of members who sought comparatively dramaticchanges in the size and scope of government. Yet in the end, they were not ableto implement very much of this agendaand public opinion was one com-ponent of that failure.

    As political consultants who work with a large number of Congre s s i o n a lcampaigns, we witnessed this dynamic at work in the summer and fall of 1996,p a rticularly on education issues. Public opinion polling consistently re v e a l e dthat most voters wanted education to be a priority. Even when they disagreedon the specific role the federal government should play, most people opposedcutting spending on things like college loans and were uncomfortable witheliminating the federal Department of Education. How could education be ap r i o r i t y, they asked, if we were abolishing the department charged with re s p o n-sibility for education?

    The clarity of the polling on this issue prompted the Democratic party andmost of its candidates to make education issues a centerpiece of their cam-paigns. The consequence is that the Republican candidates who were chal-lenged on this issue lost ground, an outcome that was visible in our pollinga c ross many districts and almost certainly visible in the candidates ownpolling. The result of their perceived vulnerability on this issue had a dire c tconsequence for policy: in 1996, the Republican caucus restored every dollarof education funding they had earlier threatened to cut, and their candidateslaunched an onslaught of political advertisements defending their re c o rd oneducation.

    Is this outcome dynamic evidence of a healthy interplay of public opinionand policy making, or is it proof that members of Congress are dangero u s l yvulnerable to the prevailing winds of public opinion? The answer rests in parton how you feel about the funding that was re s t o red. Those who support fed-eral spending on education tend to believe that the pre s s u re of public opinionsaved the day; those on the other side decry the education debate as dema-goguery.

    Public Opinion Polling and the Future of Democracy 67

  • 68 Lake, Sosin

    We have been on both the winning and the losing sides of this kind ofdynamic, and we have seen these dynamics at work on many issues, often withvastly differing outcomes. The dynamics of balancing the budget, welfarere f o rm, and health care re f o rm were all similar (although with quite diverg e n toutcomes). In each case, public opinion polling re flected an electorate that wasmaking these issues a priority, and political candidates and elected leadersresponded by making these issues legislative priorities as well. Health care isa particularly interesting example. Public opinion pre s s u re played a part inp rompting the first Clinton administration to make health care re f o rm a cen-terpiece, and public opinion also played a role in killing their plan. At the sametime, despite this failure, public opinion continues to exert pre s s u re on electedleaders to re f o rm the system, with the consequence that legislative attempts atre f o rm continue, at the federal and state levels. In the end, we believe thata g ree or disagree with the specific legislative outcomespublic opinion, andthe polling that captures it, plays a healthy role in setting direction and check-ing excesses.

    Our second reason for seeing public opinion polling as making a valuablecontribution to democratic decision making is its ability to keep elected offi-cials in touch with the lives of the people they re p resent, particularly at thefederal level. The average congressional district in the 1990s comprises ro u g h l ysix hundred thousand peoplefar too many for the average member of Con-g ress to meet individually. (Many new candidates begin campaigns wanting toknock on every door in their district. Assuming the typical district has 250,000households, then at the rate of ten hours per day, seven days a week, and withno more than five minutes for each door, this would take more than fouryears.) This means that members often develop their sense of public opinionf rom the small circles in which they travel, primarily circles of organized inter-ests, donors, and other political elites. These elites are hardly re p resentative ofpopular opinion. For one thing, they pay much more attention to the detailsof politics and policy; Gallup polling has suggested that the average Americanvoter spends no more than five minutes a week thinking about politics. Nodoubt this is considerably less than is spent by people whom members of Con-gress see often.

    In addition, there is plenty of evidence that the opinions of the public atl a rge and political elites diff e r. Last year, for example, we did a small publicopinion poll among donors to federal candidates (an equal number of Demo-crats and Republicans), using identical questions to national random samples u rveys. The opinions of the two populationsdonors and voterswere con-siderably different. For example, although the majority of donors believe that g o v e rnment regulations go too far now (58 percent), most of the rest ofAmerica believes that we need to make government regulations tougher (53p e rcent). Similarly, by a margin of two to one donors believe that govern m e n tspends too much, taxes too much, and interf e res in things better left to indi-viduals and businesses (55 percent to 29 percent). For the public, however,

  • it is more true that government is too concerned with what big corporationsand wealthy special interests want, and does not do enough to help workingfamilies (48 percent to 35 percent).

    This divide between what the public thinks and what members hear fro mthe people they come in contact with most often is quite visible to us everytime we brief members of Congress on national polling. Invariably, somethingin the polling surprises them and contradicts their own sense of public opin-ion. To their credit, however, this is one reason why members of Congress areso eager for polling data. Most work very hard to stay in touch, and they rec-ognize that staying in touch re q u i res eff o rt; their constant quest for new andmore thorough public opinion data reflects this.

    What Does the Future of Polling Imply for the Future ofDemocratic Preferences?

    Over the past fifty years, most technological changes have improved the accu-racy of political polls. Once telephones became nearly universal among votersand computers made possible random-digit-dial sampling methodologies,sampling became more consistent and reliable. Computer assisted telephonei n t e rviewing (CATI) technologies have minimized error in questionnaireadministration. Faster and more powerful computers allow more sophisticateddata manipulation and analysis.

    The next fifty years, however, are as likely to bring greater i n a c c u r a c y a sgreater accuracy. First, for example, although nearly universal telephone pen-etration among voters initially made telephone interviewing the best balancebetween cost and re l i a b i l i t y, changes in telephone use may be introducing news o u rces of erro r. Greater use of answering machines to screen callsas well astelemarketing burnoutmay already be reducing incidence rates. Also, theexplosion of area codes means there is less and less relationship between tele-phone exchanges and geography, making it more difficult to control sampledistribution.

    A d d ressing these kinds of inaccuracies is possible, but often costly, re q u i r-ing more aggressive call-back methodologies and greater use of computer assis-tance in both sample and questionnaire administration. If the cost of accuratepolling grows, this in turn suggests that w h o has access to polling is likely tochange, with only wealthier organizations having the ability to commissionindependent polling.

    Campaign finance re f o rm also plays a role. If campaign spending by indi-vidual campaigns is capped, while the cost of communicating continues tog row (with the cost of communicating being the largest and most import a n texpense), smaller amounts of money will be available for all the other thingsthat political campaigns must dowhich includes re s e a rch and polling, as wellas many other administrative and overhead costs. This means that ever lesspolling will be done by individual candidates, and that a higher pro p o rtion of

    Public Opinion Polling and the Future of Democracy 69

  • 70 Lake, Sosin

    the polling available to elected officials will be done by advocacy and lobbyorganizations. It may also mean that more polling is done by political parties,who then share results across multiple candidacies.

    This has two potential implicatio...


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