Are Opinion Polls Useful?
Should Congressmen Rely on Poll Results?
To what extent should Congressmen rely on polling results to guide them in voting on legislation? Is it in the public interest to follow confidently the people’s view of the issues? Is it important to correct the prevailing opinion on popular questions? In what manner, in view of polling results, can Congress best exert leadership?
Congressmen usually seek all possible advice before they arrive at their decisions. They want to use every means available for determining what the people want and what people believe about current issues. Public opinion polls can furnish the Congressmen with one form of evidence which they can use together with evidence from other sources. A Congressman would probably not rely solely on the polls for an estimate of public ,opinion, but he could be expected to make use of every evidence of public opinion.
Is the public always right?
Critics of the polls argue that the public’s opinions should not alone be taken into consideration by Congressmen in making their decision, since the public as a whole lacks the information necessary to forming sound opinions on many important issues. The polls themselves show that a third of the nation has but a vague idea of a tariff, and most Americans cannot name a single provision of the Atlantic Charter, nor are they aware that the United States received reverse lend-lease aid from Great Britain. And about 40 percent are confused as to who such well-known public figures as Thurman Arnold, Philip Murray, John L. Lewis, or Eric Johnston are.
Published results of polls have shown time after time that the public favored a policy before Congress had acted upon it. Well-known instances are: repeal of the neutrality act, lend-lease, preparedness, the need for more air power, conscription, and price and wage controls. This does not mean that Congressmen had not already thought deeply about these matters before the polls were taken. It may mean merely that Congress was inclined to study these questions with great care before committing itself or that it was awaiting some good evidence of the public viewpoint on these important questions.
Is the minority important?
Few persons would suggest that Congress should follow blindly the opinions of a majority of the public as they are revealed by modern polls.
In this connection, Gerald Johnson, one of the editors of the Baltimore Sun and a well-known historian says, “Sometimes a man in public office ought to take the unpopular side. If he cherishes some hope that it may not be so unpopular as it looks, it is easier for him to do his duty. But if public opinion were always measured precisely, no such doubts would be laid upon the man who must do what is right in spite of the wrath of his constituents.”
Even if the polls were to become widely accepted as the best evidence of the public’s views on current issues, Congressmen need not become robots. Otherwise, as one writer has remarked, “democratic government might as well be conducted by a roomful of $25-a-week clerks, adding up the results of national referenda.”
Have polls a place in government?
But polling results can show Congress how well the people are informed on public questions, how intensely they feel about specific issues, how fair and sensible is the public’s reaction to government policy, how and why the people divide on these questions, and where the “sore spots” of public opinion are. With such information at hand, Congress can use its best judgment to decide what course to take in the public interest. The polls are as important probably as pressure groups, newspapers, and other things which try to shape public opinion. They will be valuable to democracy only to the degree that our leaders are able to learn how to evaluate their results—that is, how to use and not to use them.
Late in December 1944, a Congressional committee which was investigating campaign expenditures made a critical investigation of polling data gathered by one of the major polls during the 1944 presidential campaign. The committee chairman’s remarks which opened hearings on this subject included this comment:
“If polls can be useful to the Congress and to the Nation in determining attitudes on public questions, then certainly the mechanism by which the polls operate becomes of tremendous interest to the Congress because the Congress could be the first to benefit by the use of this information.”
The technical committee which assisted the House committee in its investigation pointed out a number of defects in polling methods, yet reached the following conclusion:
“Modern scientific sampling technique can predict with striking accuracy the results which would be obtained if a complete canvass were made of the entire population. The use of scientific sampling methods in ascertaining public opinion constitutes an important contribution to the needs of a well-informed democratic society. ... Scientific sampling and survey techniques now available, carefully and rigidly used, will yield information relating to public opinion and to economic, political and social matters, that is dependably accurate within relatively small margins of error; at great speed, and with low cost.”
The interest in Congress shown by the investigation of polling methods may be taken as a straw in the wind. While the committee did not intend to accept without critical study the reliability of the polls, it nevertheless recognized the important part which the polls play in the discussion of social and political issues in the United States.