A Society Growing Weary of Polls


Washington. WITH A TONE appropriate to discussion of an unmistakable public misfortune, the survey and polling business sorrowfully reports a rise in slammed doors, unreturned questionnaires and telephone hang-ups. Actually, the rejections signify the good sense of people weary of being exploited for commerce and politics.

But you wouldn't guess that from the industry's analysis of hard times on the inquiry circuit. "It's part of the disintegration of the core values that make up the society, the unwillingness to accept the goodwill of strangers and the general wariness people have."

That's the painful assessment attributed in the New York Times to one seasoned observer of the trend, Leo Bogart, recently bTC retired executive director of the Newspaper Advertising Bureau. Others in and around the business don't express the problem quite so lugubriously. But there's little doubt that anxiety is spreading among the folks who would appreciate the opportunity to ask you a few questions.

Apart from the nuisance factor of strangers barging in for their own benefit, many of these surveys are quite harmless, dealing, for example, with strife. Many government-sponsored surveys contribute valuably to community well-being by collecting data on health-care practices, housing needs, and so forth.

It is in politics, however, that polling has evolved into a destructive force that is in large part responsible for the increasingly sickly condition of the American political process.

Politics without polling has become as unthinkable as aviation without radar. From city council to the presidency, no office seeker makes a move without first surveying voter opinion, and, finger to the wind, adjusting positions accordingly. Ronald Reagan was a master of the technique, adjusting his public statements on abortion and welfare to make the most of the latest survey returns. Reading the polls, presidential candidate George Bush saw a winning theme, and irresponsibly vowed, "No new taxes."

Polls claim to tell the public who's ahead and who's going to win, thus injecting an impression of destiny into what is supposed to be a decision of the electorate. To make it all the more credible, the poll results are routinely described as "scientific," a claim repeatedly belied by election day surprises. Nonetheless, a generation of journalists has grown up treating polling results as tangible, reliable data that must compete for attention with what the candidates have to say.

The folly of all this is that after virtually every election, the same press that bestowed adulation on the polls goes into an introspection on what went wrong with the polls. There's always an explanation.

A few days before the recent Senate primary election in Louisiana, for instance, polls reported a 22-28 percent share of the vote for a widely watched racist candidate. He received 44 percent of the vote. Explanation: his supporters were reluctant to level with the pollsters. Perhaps so. But then why are polls credited with providing a snapshot of the moment, let alone the pollsters' claims of the predictive powers of science?

Political polls modestly claim that they merely hold a mirror up to political reality. But the returns they produce -- even though of dubious validity -- heavily influence reality. It is an old tale of American politics that a lag in the polling derby reduces a candidate's fund-raising appeal, leading to a lack of the money needed to rise in the polls.

Another curse of the polls are their claims to reporting "public opinion." What they are really presenting are undigested responses to issues of the moment, which is quite different from deliberately arrived at opinion. Furthermore, an ample body of research on survey technique consistently shows that responses to issues are heavily influenced by the wording of questions and even the order in which they are asked. He who writes the questions can shape the answers.

Need sensible people fret over hard times in the opinion and survey industry? Only to the extent that non-cooperators account for merely one-third of those asked to answer questions. But the trend is rising and therefore is in the right direction. If it goes far enough, the plague of political polling will just wither away. But don't just hope. Hang up!

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