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Polls, Polls Everywhere...

It doesn't require much reflection to realize that attempting to generalize about the views of 300 million Americans can be a very hazardous business. Whether it is for a news story, a political campaign or a new product rollout, guessing wrong can lead to anything from embarrassment to catastrophic losses. That's why polls are everywhere. They apply the methods of scientific inquiry to social behavior.

As polling veteran Jon Krosnick observed, "Everybody has come to realize that in order to stay in touch with the realities of the marketplace, in order for government to be responsive to its citizens and in order for academics to understand what drives people's behavior, surveys are an incredibly efficient way of getting data." (1)

Who does public opinion polls?

  • News organizations (print and electronic)—to provide raw material for stories
  • Academic institutions—to collect data for scholarly research (and also to get exposure for less than the cost of a football team)
  • Business—to better understand their customers and competition
  • Politicians and political advisors—to craft successful campaign strategies
  • Government—to provide reliable unbiased information about all aspects of life
  • Private polling organizations—to serve the information needs of a wide range of clients
  • Television and radio networks and stations, newspapers and magazines, to determine who their viewers, listeners and readers are and what they want

Public opinion polls are both snapshots and moving pictures

  • A poll question reveals the public mood on a given issue at that point in time
  • A poll question repeated over time tracks any shifts in opinion on that issue

"Polling, for better or worse, is the one mechanism by which campaigns—and governments, for that matter—are made responsive." (2)

Polls can play a central role in public policy, being used to gage

  • Interest in potential policy initiatives
  • Support for competing policy alternatives
  • Characteristics of policy supporters and opponents
  • Which issues appeal to which segments of the electorate
  • Level of support for current policies
  • Level of satisfaction and dissatisfaction with local service delivery

Polls document the rise and fall of issues

  • The different questions asked in polls from one time to the next reflect the shifting landscape of issues important to the public
  • Questions that persist over time highlight issues with a continuing importance to the public

(1) Jon Krosnick, September 27, 2006 Stanford University press release
(2) Matt Bai, "Going Deep With Iowa's Meta-Voters," New York Times Magazine, January 18, 2004

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