Wednesday, December 2, 2015

Does Polling Undermine Democracy?

President Harry S. Truman holds up an incorrect headline after winning the 1948 presidential election.

     In class, we have been learning a lot about polls. We have learned about their success, from increasing the youth vote to correctly identifying the next U.S. president before official vote count. However, we have also been learning about their flaws. They could have a bad sampling or manipulative wording in their question. I encourage you to check out this article by the New York times (also linked below), which details different opinions about the title of this post. Some say that they "can give people a stronger voice," but others are not so convinced. George Bishop, an independent survey research consultant and a retired professor of political science at the University of Cincinnati, claims that they mislead and give the "illusion of public opinion."

     Jill Lepore, a writer for The New Yorker, claims: "from the late nineteen-nineties to 2012, twelve hundred polling organizations conducted nearly thirty-seven thousand polls by making more than three billion phone calls" but also shares that, "a 2013 study—a poll—found that three out of four Americans suspect polls of bias." If polls are so untrusted, why are they so popular? What do you think?

What is your opinion on the following questions:
     - Do you agree with the statement: "Polling Undermines Democracy?" Why or why not?
     - What makes a poll biased? Do you trust polls?



Lea Tan said...

I agree with the New York Times article that polls are often vaguely worded in a way that makes it hard to get completely accurate results. Like the example in the article "Do you approve or disapprove of the way Barack Obama is handling his job as president?," it's way too vague and black and white. It only gives respondents a choice between "approve" and "disapprove," and "handling his job as president" encompasses way too many things for many people to feel completely one-sided about Obama. In this way, the results of this poll probably created an illusion of the public opinion of Obama that wasn't necessarily accurate. Furthermore, polls are sometimes conducted using self-reporting which can be inaccurate. Because polls can be so inaccurate, I do think that polling sometimes undermines democracy. They generally summarize public opinion about certain issues by taking a random sample of people, which is democratic, but if the results are inaccurate, it does make it seem like democracy isn't efficient or effective. The way that questions are worded by pollsters can drastically affect the results. Pollsters can essentially "manufacture," like the article states, public opinion based off of how they ask the question. Even though the sample of people represented in polls may be fair, widespread, and democratic, the results of polls are can be biased and not accurate, undermining democracy.

Annika Olives said...

We talked about bandwagon-ing in class, which is where people will base their own opinion off the polls. For example, if the polls show that a large part of the population will vote for Donald Trump, other people who are in the middle or those who don't really have their own opinion may vote for Trump too just because everyone else is doing it. I think that polls undermine democracy in this way because the whole point of democracy is to create your own viewpoints and vote on the issues that you care about, something that cannot be done if people are basing their opinions off each other. Additionally, in terms of elections, if someone is leading in the polls by a fair margin, it may discourage other politicians from running because it seems futile. Again, democracy is undermined because it seems like elections are already "set" because of the polls.

However, despite the flaws that the article mentioned, polls are really the only way to gauge public opinion, which I think is the biggest reason why they are still used. Obviously it would be difficult to get a perfect random sample or a perfect representation of the population with every poll, but getting a general sense of how people feel about something is really valuable for the government and our leaders to know.

Jared Mayerson said...

Thank you both for your comments! You both brought up some really good points about why polls can undermine democracy. My question is then: why are they so popular?

Anna Joshi said...

To answer your question Jared, I believe that polls are popular because, well, they are pictures. And I mean, who doesn’t like pictures? Pictures are attractive and alluring, especially polls since people know that they are representing something. These visual representations also allow the viewer to quickly get a sense of what is trying to be conveyed, without having to read much. Further, despite the fact that they may be inaccurate, it still gives the viewer some type of look into the public’s opinion.