What Are Public Opinion Polls?

Modern polling methods are not yet perfect, but close students of the subject believe that properly conducted they come closer to the right answers than the older and less scientific ways of feeling the public pulse.

By 1936 the public became aware of so-called “public opinion polls.” And not long after that some people were calling them a threat to democracy. They were said to be a new way of measuring the public’s view. Actually, the polls were based on the same old theory of asking questions, though that wasn’t of course the whole story.

Soon many began to wonder how summaries of opinion could be made when only a few thousand people in the country are ever questioned on any one issue. People began asking over and over again: “I wonder how these polls are made and how accurate they may be? I’ve never been interviewed by them, and I’ve never known or even heard of anyone who was!”

The pollers are willing to explain their system. The ABC’s of their methods are widely known and are not hard to understand.

How widespread is their use?

Day after day polls dealing with questions about public affairs and private business are being conducted throughout the United States. Opinion polling has also spread to England, Canada, Australia, Sweden, and France.

In the United States several national polls on public questions are operated by endowed and privately owned; organizations. Departments of the federal government like the Department of Agriculture and the War Department carry on opinion surveys. Two state-wide polls are actively in the field. At least two municipal polls are in operation, attempting to find out for citizens and civic leaders the popular opinions on local issues. The universities and many unofficial organizations are using polling methods to study and to improve the polls and gather information on social problems.

Private business and industry have adopted the polling device for studying their own problems. Through it businessmen attempt to test markets and the success of their advertising, to investigate the public’s opinion of their products, and to examine many other problems of policy.

The motion-picture industry uses polls continually to test the popularity of various films. Advertising agencies poll prospective users of commercial products for information to use in advertising campaigns. The newspapers, the radio industry, and the magazines study reading and listening habits by interviewing samples of their followers. Public relations men in industry employ polling methods to lay a foundation for their dealings with the public. In short, business and industry have adopted the polling devices in the belief that persons and institutions which depend on the public for support or livelihood must keep in close touch with the public’s wants and wishes.

The polls are doubtless here to stay. Just how do they work? What can we really learn from them? Can polls do what is expected of them?