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The Problem with Public Opinion Polls



With all the discussion of polls and the presidential race it may be hard to believe, but I have yet to see a single poll asking whom people want to be president.

Virtually every poll has a structure like this: “If the 2004 presidential election were being held today, and the candidates were John Kerry, the Democrat, George W. Bush, the Republican, and Ralph Nader, would you vote for John Kerry, George W. Bush, or Ralph Nader?”

Of course a lot of people will respond “Kerry” simply because they don’t want Bush, or “Bush” because they don’t want Kerry. They don’t necessarily want Bush or Kerry — the same many people are in when they enter the voting both with our system; they disregard other candidates, whether it’s Nader or anyone else, and go for “the lesser evil.” But polls can offer a way out — they can ask people who they actually want.

Instead of really focusing on people’s opinions, polls focus on the action of voting in a context that is a false hypothetical — if the “election were being held today,” when we know it isn’t. Pollsters do that, I suppose, because they assume should be predicting how the election will turn out, rather than giving a clear picture of the thinking of the U.S. public.

A real “public opinion” poll would begin by asking a question something like this: “Who do you want to be president?” Or better yet: “Regardless of their chances of winning, which of the following candidates do you most want to be president?” This would get at what people actually want given the current field. It’s not that the “who would you vote for” question is unimportant; we just shouldn’t be confined to that.

Another way of approaching it would be to use Instant Runoff Voting: “Please rank the following in order of who you would personally want to be president.” There could be a wealth of information discovered with such questioning.

And to better determine the policies favored by the U.S. public and minimize the personal animosities, pollsters could ask: “Which of the following do you agree with most on the issues?”

By asking the questions they do — and by not asking questions like those listed above — pollsters are in effect limiting the choices of the public. Polls — which should be a method by which the public, rather than the parties or the pundits, articulates its desires — are crafted in such a way as to solidify the status of the “major candidates.” Then those polls are reported on over and over again, further canonizing the position of those candidates in the name of public opinion.

Citizens who might want to support an independent effort then hold back. A self-fulfilling prophesy comes to pass as the “major party” candidates tighten their grip on people who are often drawn to them by little more than their fear of the other “major party.” Breaking into the system is virtually impossible largely because pollsters have — consciously or not — incorporated the “greater evil” fear into the polls. A significant number of people may want an independent or “third party” candidate and we wouldn’t know it because the public isn’t asked.

All this seems to stem from a remarkably dismissive attitude toward the public that some pollsters seem to display. When I raised some of these concerns with Susan Pinkus, polling director of the LA Times, she replied: “Who cares what they want? This is who they’re going to vote for.” That’s a very strange attitude for a pollster — someone who is supposed to care a lot what the public thinks — to have. What matters she insisted is “push comes to shove — who’s going to win the election?”

This fixation on the polls helps mold the context of the election, as well as provides the threshold for inclusion in the debates. “Historically third parties don’t get a lot of votes” Pinkus noted. On the one hand, that’s a self-fulfilling prophesy; on the other it’s just false. Perot got 19 percent of the vote in 1992; at one point (prior to his withdrawal and re-entry) he led with some 37 of voters saying they would vote from him in major polls. Finally, Pinkus acknowledged the value of asking the public who they want to be president, but said she didn’t plan to do a poll herself: “Why don’t you do a poll — you can get a grant and do a poll” she told me.

I did actually manage to do that in 2000, in the closing days of the election. A funder put up the money for a poll with the Rasmussen polling firm which basically found that third party candidates Buchanan’s and Nader’s numbers doubled once the question was asked who they preferred to be president regardless of their chances of winning. But money for independent-minded folks is scarce and, in any case, that should be the job of the polling organizations and media outlets.

These issues are all the more important because of the roles that polls play in our presidential election. For example, the Commission on Presidential Debates, which is run by the former heads of the Republican and Democratic parties, states that it will only allow candidates who achieve 15 percent in “national public opinion polls” into the debates. But, once again, these polls don’t actually measure the opinion of the public. They attempt to predict how the public will vote given the bind that it’s in. That bind is made more egregious as candidates are kept out of the debates by the Commission on Presidential Debates using polls which are advertised as reflecting public opinion; but are being used to mold it.

Moreover, the heads of the Commission on Presidential Debates have basically asked for the “who do you want to be president question” to be asked. When some suggested that one criterion for inclusion in presidential debates should be whether a majority of people in the U.S. wanted them to be in the debates, the heads of the CPD rejected the effort.

CPD director and former Republican senator Alan Simpson said: “The issue is who do you want to be president. It’s not who do you want to do a dress rehearsal and see who can be the cutest at the debate.” Similarly, Paul Kirk, the co-chair of the CPD and former head of the Democratic National Committee, said: “It’s a matter of entertainment vs. the serious question of who would you prefer to be president of the United States. Otherwise you get into ‘Wouldn’t it be fun to have X, Y, Z?'” So for the Commission on Presidential Debates to fulfill the very criteria it has set for itself, the question “Who do you want to be president” needs to be asked as the basis for inclusion in any debates that group sponsors.

Moreover, polling must be done in a more open fashion and until they are, all the chatter of “public opinion polls” and the “choice” that the U.S. public is making in their “preference” about who they are “for” in the presidential race will be is rather hollow rhetoric manipulating the public rather than reporting on it.

SAM HUSSEINI is communications director for the Institute for Public Accuracy.He can be reached at:


Sam Husseini is founder of the website

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