Polls vs. polls: Dueling opinion surveys in the health debate reflect their limited value

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This just in. The latest poll numbers may or may not show decreasing American support for health care reform legislation depending on which survey is referenced, when it was taken, who was questioned and how it was conducted. Meanwhile, back in Washington, politicians cite these ubiquitous indications of the public pulse to support contrary stances.

Like the 1970 rock song that complained of "sign, sign, everywhere a sign," poll numbers urge politicians to "do this, don't do that, can't you read the sign?" The meaningful sign of the times is poll-driven "public opinion" that morphs into "fact" in a swirling gunk of data that pollutes public dialogue.

Polls have become plebiscite, appearing to fulfill the goal of public survey pioneer George Gallup that political sampling would serve democracy by dishing up the thoughts of common citizens on sundry public issues. Gallup dreamed in the 1930s and 1940s that such readings of public attitudes would overcome the loud voices of special interests "who speak in the name of democracy while abusing its freedoms to destroy its structure." Little did he know that polls instead would become another tool of abuse.

Gallup's dream has taken on nightmarish qualities as the poll has become the dominant means of discerning public opinion. Commentators and policy wags have bought into what media scholars Theodore L. Glasser and Charles T. Salmon have identified as the main assets and dangers of polling: it is scientific; it supports claims of objectivity and popular appeal; it makes it easy to avoid addressing the quality of the opinions expressed; and it confirms the political authority of citizens.

The truth is, polls have limited value. A survey is an anonymous and tiny sampling of the moment. It is not the same as one person, one vote, which is how real public opinion is measured periodically in elections. In fact, polls can pervert the one-vote concept because they lend weight to the opinions of some who don't bother to vote or otherwise participate in public decision-making. Polls also encourage respondents who otherwise would not even think about a subject; they are asked to render an opinion immediately, and they do simply because they have been asked to do so by an organization of authority.

Polling measures only a mood; it is a mere tasting of attitudes that can change just as surely as a balmy breeze can thaw a foul disposition brought on by a winter storm. Its method is subject to error. Some polls employ loaded language to question people who do not necessarily represent the group being characterized. And polling, through the influence of think tanks, media and lobbyists for corporations, have become a powerful tool of monied interests and political elites who cite findings to lend authority to their agendas.

The larger problem is, as political scientist Benjamin Ginsberg has noted, "Poll results and public opinion are terms that are used almost synonymously."

The give-and-take of political discussion in public meeting places such as taverns, union halls and town squares has given way to loud, highly partisan opinion-mongering on radio talk shows and cable television "news" programs. Political and industry elites join paid media pundits who interpret often vague and conflicting polls to claim the legitimacy of public opinion for their viewpoints and to dominate public discussion, largely overwhelming the type of citizen participation that Gallup had in mind.

In the end, as President Barack Obama suggested during last week's forum on health care reform at Blair House, the true test of public opinion in a democracy is an election.

It is time -- nearly a century beyond time, actually -- for the Democrats in Congress to take advantage of the fact that they were elected in a poll far more accurate and meaningful than political surveys. They should use the legitimacy of their congressional majority to enact health care reform legislation. And if the citizens disapprove, they can render their verdict in what even politicians concede is the poll that really matters: the next election.

Steve Hallock , author of "Reporters Who Made History: Great American Journalists on the Issues and Crises of the Late 20th Century," teaches media ethics and public opinion at Point Park University.


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