Published Date

January 1, 1946

Resource Type

GI Roundtable Series, Primary Source

From GI Roundtable 4: Are Opinion Polls Useful? (1946)

Public opinion is important in democratic America, and the role of polls as a means of measuring that opinion is a subject that will interest nearly any discussion group.

Most of us like to know how other people think and feel about a great variety of subjects. Newspapers, magazines, books, and radio bring us the results of opinion polls. But how many of us know how opinion polls are taken, or how reliable they are, or what useful purposes they serve?

This pamphlet discusses how polls are made, why different polls produce varying results, what types of information these polls can obtain, and what some of the views are regarding the usefulness of polls. Readers of this pamphlet and discussion leaders are encouraged to prepare their own questions and raise them at a discussion meeting on “Are Opinion Polls Useful?”


How can leaders arouse interest?

When you have decided where and when your discussion meeting is to be held, you should consider ways of getting that information to persons who might like to attend your meeting. A group discussion of this subject will be news in your area. You should see that announcements are made in appropriate newspapers. You can have posters made and placed in conspicuous places’ recreation rooms, libraries, and mess halls. You can post notices on bulletin boards. You can announce the meeting over a loud-speaker system. You can suggest that librarians display copies of this pamphlet and supplementary reading materials on a special table.

Copies of this pamphlet should be made available for leisure-time reading. This will arouse people’s interest in attending a discussion meeting on opinion polls. It will also enable them to evaluate more intelligently the information presented by your speakers. And it will prepare them to take a more active part in the discussion.

Your own careful planning of your meeting will be a big factor in making your discussion successful. If you plan a forum, panel, or symposium type of discussion, the selection of good speakers is very important. If you plan an informal discussion, then it is doubly important that you prepare thoroughly before the meeting. Such visual aids as a blackboard and perhaps some appropriate charts will probably prove helpful in whatever type of discussion you use.

What kind of discussion meeting is best?

The size of your group, facilities of your meeting place, and familiarity of members of your group with opinion polls are factors that will enter into your decision as to what type of discussion is best.

A forum speaker on this subject should be an expert on opinion polls. He should be given an opportunity to read this pamphlet before his talk. You, the leader, should time the meeting so that members of your group will have at least half an hour for informal discussion and questioning of the forum speaker.

The usefulness of opinion polls is a subject that lends itself to panel or symposium discussion. Panel speakers could discuss major points of view about opinion polls in a conversational manner before the rest of the group. Symposium speakers might divide the subject into four 10-minute talks. The first speaker’s subject could have some such title as “How Do We Know What the Public Thinks?” in which he discussed the various ways that opinion is expressed. The second could discuss “How Accurate Are Opinion Polls?” The third could talk on the subject, “Are Opinion Polls Really Useful?” And the fourth, looking into future potential uses of opinion polls, could discuss “What Are Possibilities and Dangers of Opinion Polls?”

Since most individuals will have some pretty definite ideas about the usefulness of opinion polls, you could turn your entire meeting over to informal discussion. You might illustrate poll-taking to your group by conducting some ballot voting at the meeting. For example, you might distribute small ballots at the beginning and ask all persons to vote on the questions raised by the title of this pamphlet, Are Opinion Polls Useful? voting “yes,” “no,” or “undecided.” Then at the end of your discussion meeting you might take another vote by the same individuals on the same question and compare results. You might experiment also with some question in which you think there would be considerable diversity of opinion—preferably one of particular interest to your group. Phrase the question so that it is completely objective when another person is questioned. Phrase the same question so it is slanted to invite a “yes” answer, and then reslanted so it will invite a “no” answer. This will help demonstrate the responsibilities facing poll-takers, and also the dangers of opinion polls if they are used for propaganda purposes. If you decide to try a poll of your own, be sure to reread and observe the “Warning” on page 2 of EM 1, Guide for Discussion Leaders.

Handbooks to help discussion leaders

Various types of discussion meetings and numerous helpful suggestions to discussion leaders are discussed in considerable detail in EM 1, GI Roundtable: Guide for Discussion Leaders.

Leaders faced with the problem of planning and conducting a group discussion on the radio or over a loud-speaker system of the United States Armed Forces Institute will find much valuable information and many helpful suggestion in EM 90, GI Radio Roundtable.

Questions for discussion are important

Readers of this pamphlet and discussion leaders will undoubtedly have many questions of their own regarding the usefulness of opinion polls. The leader should encourage members of his discussion group to ask their own questions, whether he uses a forum, panel, symposium, or informal discussion method. Below are some questions which may prove helpful to leaders in starting off the discussion or keeping it going.

  1. How does public opinion influence legislation, social action, or political decisions in this country? Does the public usually show good judgment in its opinions on important issues, or is it best for our leaders to make decisions independently of the wishes of the people?
  2. How can we find out what the public thinks? Do modern polls provide an accurate means for finding out what the people believe or want? Is the sampling method any better than other methods of feeling the public pulse? What important pitfalls are there in the sampling method? What constitutes a sample of the country’s population?
  3. What do you believe are the main factors which make people think differently on social, economic, and political questions? Are there major differences of opinion among various age groups, economic groups, or other classifications? Are small differences in the results obtained by various polls to be expected? Are “normal margins of error” neat alibis of the pollers, or can their appearance in results of sampling procedures be proved inevitable and logical?
  4. Are there dangers in the growing use of polling procedures in business and government? Are there any restrictions to prevent misuse of polls to influence public opinion or to slant the, results? How can the public be safeguarded from unreliable polls? How can the public judge the reliability of opinion polls?
  5. How should our representatives in government view opinion polls? Should legislators base their votes on the desires of the public as shown by opinion polls? Can legislators study the polling results seriously and still remain public leaders? How would you use the data supplied by opinion surveys if you were a lawmaker? Should the government use the sampling method to find out what the people think about current issues and government policies? Is it dangerous to allow government administrators to conduct public opinion surveys? Do you think opinion polls are useful?


For Further Reading

These books are suggested for supplementary reading if you have access to them or wish to purchase them from the publishers. They are not approved nor officially supplied by the War Department. They have been selected because they give additional information and represent different points of view.

Consumer and Opinion Research. By Albert B. Blankenship. Published by Harper and Brothers, 49 East 33d St., New York 16, N. Y. (1943). $4.50. A popular summary, particularly for businessmen.

Mandate from the People. By Jerome S. Bruner. Published by Duell, Sloan and Pearce, 270 Madison Ave., New York 16, N. Y. (1944). $2.75. What the public thinks about important current issues, as revealed by the polls, is brought together and interpreted in this volume.

Gauging Public Opinion. By Hadley Cantril. Published by Princeton University Press, Princeton, N. J. (1944). $3.75. A sound and valuable study of polls.

Radio Audience Measurement. By Matthew N. Chappell and C. E. Hooper. Published by Stephen Daye Press, 48 East 43d St., New York 17, N. Y. (1944). $3.50. The authors, who are associated with an enterprise which measures radio audiences, discuss adaptations of the sampling method to the field of radio listenership.

Guide to Public Opinion Polls. By George H. Gallup. Published by Princeton University Press (1944). $1.50. This is a handbook which attempts to summarize the subject in question and answer form.

The People’s Choice. By Paul F. Lazarsfeld, Bernard Berelson, and Hazel Gaudet. Published by Duell, Sloan and Pearce (1944). $3. A report on a comprehensive study of voting habits during the presidential campaign of 1940 in Erie County, Ohio. Sampling methods were used to gather information on political behavior, vote intentions, and the impact of reading and radio listening on the electorate.

What America Thinks. By William A. Lydgate. Published by Thomas Y. Crowell Co., 432 Fourth Ave., New York 16, N. Y. (1944). $2.50. A member of one of the major polling organizations discusses sampling procedures and popular points of view in the recent years, revealed by the polls.