NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis


September 29, 2004

Unfortunately, many politicians spend their careers chasing the will-o-wisp of public opinion in order to determine their positions at the expense of analysis, thought and consistency. And they frequently use polls to figure out which way the political winds are blowing, says Bruce Bartlett.

Consequently, advocates now use polls to advance their agendas. If polls were truly scientific, if the public were well informed and if public opinion was stable, this might help advance political debate. However, none of those things are true. Moreover, it is too easy to load questions so as to get pretty much whatever answer is wanted by whoever is paying for the poll.

Until recently, this wasn't that much of a problem. According to Bartlett:

  • National polls were very expensive and only conducted by reputable organizations; in recent years, computers and the sharp decline in telephone charges have greatly lowered the cost of polling and increased the number of polling companies.
  • Now, just about any special interest group can afford to do a poll showing overwhelming support for its position; also, presidential campaigns can afford to poll almost continuously.

Thus much of the volatility we have seen in the presidential race this year simply stems from a vast proliferation of polls. There is a poll from some major news organization almost daily, explains Bartlett.

But bias also plays a role in volatility, he says. For example:

  • It is well known that Republicans tend to vote in higher percentages than Democrats; thus any poll based on the general population is going to tilt toward the Democrats.
  • Narrowing the population down to registered voters will improve Republicans prospects, and polling only likely voters will improve them still more.

Of course, the only poll that matters is the one on Election Day, says Bartlett.

Source: Bruce Bartlett, "Which Way is the Wind Blowing," National Center for Policy Analysis, September 29, 2004.


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