Do polls help or hurt the political process?

A viewer asked this question on 7/20/2000:

What are the roles of public opinion polls in American politics? Do you think they help or hinder American Democracy? Can you please explain why? Thank you very much.

npscott gave this response on 7/20/2000:

Public Opinion Polls are like every tool. In themselves, they are neutral. It's the use made of them that can be good or bad.

I worked for Democratic Pollster Peter Hart for a few months, as a telephone poll taker. I also have worked for the U of Maryland Survey Research Center, as a poll-taker.

Polls take the temperature of public feeling and attitudes. But, like a thermometer reading, you need to keep taking readings.

Take a patient's temperature when he has scarlet fever, and it reads say, 104. The caregiver doesn't then stop. She anxiously works to lower the fever, and continually monitors it for improvement.

Public Opinion polls are the same way. They measure feelings and attitudes.

Feelings are emotions, and emotions are volatile. Attitudes can be fixed, but in campaigns--when people are in the process of making up their minds--attitudes are in the process of either being fixed and exercised, or of being formed.

Attitudes toward a public servant form over a long period of time, usually.

If negatives begin to build, however, and a public servant doesn't personally sense this; or does not take polls; by the time he's up for re-election, attitudes about him might have hardened.

It takes time to change a hardened attitude, and four or more months until election may not be enough time. In short, polls can be a 'corrective' device for a public servant.

Issues are very important--they are the heart of democracy--and people running for public office like to know how voters feel.

Polls measure all these things; and despite the Truman election which made polling infamous; they are highly accurate.

They are invaluable in a close race. I polled for a governor's race in Ohio in 1982, where voter's opinions about both candidates was so fluid, it could go either way.

Hart called selected poll-takers together, and asked us what 'feeling' we had about these fluid voters who would tip the outcome if they all voted for one candidate.

Now we used old-fashioned institution. But it was institution based on each of us having talked to scores of voters, repeating the same questions over and over. This gave us a "feel" for the electorate.

We came to a 'consensus' in the meeting about where the 'undecided' were tending, and why; what issues and what candidate characteristic's they were looking for.

"Our" candidate addressed these issues forthrightly, and emphasised the qualities he felt he had, that they wanted. He won. But, four days before the election, it could have gone either way.
Peter Hart's superior polling, and staff meeting, and strategic decision making, made the difference in the election.

Of course, there are politicians who are "weather vanes", who conveniently swing whichever way public opinion swings.

But this is nothing new. The prototype of that kind of politician was Senator Stephen A. Douglass of Illinois, Lincoln's opponent in the Great Debates. And, he had not a single pollster to consult.

It's quite possible for a candidate, without polls, to "work the electorate", to have such a good sense of his District, that he knows what they want to hear, and always says it. Polls only confirm for him what his developed skills already tell him.

But, for a man/woman running who has not that skill, but is honest and forthright and will even buck public opinion; polls can help him/her beat the guy who twists with the winds.

A public servant leads. By constant polling on issues, he can see what opinions and news events are creating undercurrents that are changing and shaping public opinion.

Using this information, he can get out and lead. By propounding his view on the issue, and countering negative undercurrents in the body politic, he can a shape democratic consensus.

I believe polls help American politics. Harry Truman said "politics is the science of governing", and also said, "politics is a noble art".

A politician in a democracy has to deal with thousands of 'free thinkers'; people with both fluid and fixed ideas and prejudices. All form into like or opposing groups. He has to take this diverse people, and lead. He has to use his "bully pulpit" as Theodore Roosevelt called it.

Polls help him/her to do this, to forge coalitions in favor of issues and pass legislation, or oppose legislation for the benefit of all.

Peter Hart's receptionist told me, that most voters are in a broad middle of agreement. But, it was on "hot button" issues, like abortion or gun control or foreign aide, that they differed, and which strongly motivated them.

Bad politicians know how to "push" these "hot buttons". Good politicians, know when it's being done by an opponent, and polls help him to counteract this kind of despicable campaigning.

Commercial Polling

Polls are so widespread commercially, as to be ludicrous. I feel commercial polling is a greater threat to Democracy than the than any anonymous issue or candidate polling done during campaigns.

(In political polling, the respondent's name isn't know, but his phone number is. He could be looked up. But, pollsters aren't interested in the individual survey taker.)

Commercial interests, however, collect--through 'cookies', through browser add-ons, though information voluntarily given, or through required for a person to get some internet 'freebie'-- much detailed information about people.

What you buy, what you look at on the internet is very revealing. The people looking at an individual's browsing results might very well know a person 'better' than his own spouse.

In a dictatorship, privacy is the first right attacked. I worry more about corporate manipulation of the electorate through what they learn via their commercial polling; than I do about any single individual politician's polling.

The kind of information these businesses collect is almost personality-structure information; and could be used to great harm.

JesseGordon responded:

... [efficacy by reliance from campaigns]

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