While usually presented as objective "information," polls are a form of messaging, sometimes obviously (when released by political campaigns), sometimes not. They are often over-interpreted—assigned meanings beyond any justified by the questions asked (in the same way that "mandates" are discovered in elections in which the topic of the "mandate" was not on the ballot). And, of course, there are "push polls," attempts to influence in the guise of polls.
Polls are our only means of samping broad public opinion (other than elections, in which there are often too many unspoken variables to draw detailed conclusions). Still, exercise extreme caution.**
Polling can be used to determine the effectiveness of particular messages. In common phone polls made available to the public, the "message" may be no more than a question with a narrow list of allowable answers, so care must be taken in evaluating both. (In private polls, questions can be altered for a second group of respondents, to see the effect of changes in wording on responses.)
Polling may inadvertently illustrate carelessness about language:
[Below] The latest Gallup poll on party identification nationally:
Democrats - 30%
Independents who lean Democratic - 16%
Independents who lean Republican - 16%
Republicans - 25%
Total - 87%
This leaves 13% of respondents (nationally) who express no party affiliation or "leaning." Many of these people won't vote without a LOT of motivation, but here's where we'll gain any NEW Democratic voters.
The total of 45% of the population who DO NOT identify publicly with either party (even if they tend to vote consistently for one party) shows the problem with purely partisan appeals—"Vote Democratic," etc. These appeals (on bumper stickers, etc.) may allow us to identify each other, but for winning votes in the long term, we must appeal primarily to values first, with "who advances those values" being there more softly, not in-your-face. "Vote Democratic" spoken too loudly sounds like "Join my club" rather than "Here's what we're doing for YOU."
(Candidates may try to avoid the "too partisan" problem when appealing to independents by emphasizing personal qualities rather than party; but this fails to put values out in front, so voters still won't know what the candidate stands for.)
"Democrats Regain Edge in Party Affiliation." July 2, 2015
[Below] Fox News provides an excellent example of "push polls," questions that are phrased to elicit the answer wanted by the pollster.
"The Conservative Information Bubble Lives On, Stoked By Juiced Fox News Polls." By Paul Waldman, March 5, 2015
[Below] This article describes the bewildering inconsistencies in what the public says in polling. I think this essentially is what George Lakoff and Drew Westen are telling us, each from different perspectives: People act NOT on the basis of facts but on the basis of what has been imprinted on their brains and the associations (to those imprints) evoked by particular language. Responding to impulses wired into our unconscious minds is so much easier than trying to analyze mountains of factual information. (As Lakoff has said, 98% of our thinking is unconscious—we're not aware of it.) This is why Democratic campaigns based on "just give 'em the facts" FAIL and why repetitive, effective messaging and Westen's advice on the necessity of emotional content in campaigning is critical. Republicans are decades ahead of us in applying cognitive science...and win because of it. (Other than the 1%, who would vote for Republicans if facts—the actual consequences of their policies—were all we considered?)
"How much do voters know?", Alexander Burns, POLITICO, March 13, 2012
[Below] There are some interesting points in these poll results: (1) Satire/humor (The Daily Show) seems to make what is heard "stick." (2) A longer amount of discussion on a topic—Sunday morning talk shows and talk radio (!)—has the same effect (bad news for sound bites?). But what is it about Fox News—controlling for partisanship!—that made their listeners LESS knowledgeable than those who acknowledged NO news sources? There's no answer here, but THAT is an interesting phenomenon.
"Some News Leaves People Knowing Less." Fairleigh Dickinson University PublicMind poll, November 21, 2011
[Below] What polling FAILS to tell us....
"Obama's economic problem. In a single number." By Chris Cillizza, August 18, 2011
Further examination of the Gallup poll (below) shows that only a bare majority of Democrats approve of Pres. Obama on three "economy" questions. This suggests that the reasons why substantial numbers of Democrats disapprove may be the OPPOSITE of why Republicans disapprove. That is, these Democrats may want Pres. Obama to do the opposite of what Republicans want. This leaves us with NO IDEA of why "Independents" disapprove! Without detail that is NOT provided by the polls, the numbers alone are useless for forming strategy.
Barack Obama Issues Approval -- by Party ID
Aug. 11-14, 2011
|The federal budget deficit||5||19||52|
[Below] "...one of the most robust but amazingly under-appreciated findings in American political science: independents are not independent. That is, the overwhelming majority of Americans who say [they] are 'independent' lean toward one party or the other. Call them IINOs (Independents In Name Only). IINOs who say they lean toward the Republicans think and vote just like regular Republicans. IINOs who say they lean toward the Democrats think and vote just like regular Democrats.
"Right now, according to Pew data, IINOs are 68 percent of independents, split 36/32 between Republican-leaners and Democratic-leaners, respectively. That leaves less than a third of independents who might really qualify as independent. This figure, in turn, translates into just 13 to 14 percent of adults, and inevitably a lower percentage of actual voters, since pure independents have notoriously low turnout. In 2008, according to the University of Michigan National Election Study, pure independents were only 7 percent of voters."
NEW! "Obama's Unhealthy Obsession With Independents." By Ruy Teixeira, August 3, 2011 [also posted under "Articles"]
[Below] "Finally, no matter how independents vote in the 2012 presidential election, their preferences will not necessarily determine the winner. If the election is close, it is entirely possible that the candidate chosen by most independents will lose the overall popular vote.
"Based on the national exit polls, that's what happened in each of the last three presidential elections that were decided by a margin of less than five points....
"In a close election, a candidate with an energized and unified party base can sometimes overcome a deficit among independent voters. That doesn't mean the candidates should ignore independents, but it does mean that unifying and energizing their own party's base is just as important as appealing to the independents."
NEW! "Setting the Record Straight: Correcting Myths About Independent Voters." By Alan I. Abramowitz, Senior Columnist, July 7, 2011 [also posted under "Articles"]
[Below] "What we have witnessed in the last several months is a phenomenon described in a classic book nearly 20 years ago by the political scientist John Zaller. What Zaller discovered is that public opinion tends to follow the lead of party leaders and pundits, as partisans turn to their own leaders and trusted sources for cues on what they should think and feel about the central questions of the day. Normally, when the two sides offer competing views, the 40-45 percent of voters on each side follow the lead of the "opinion leaders" on their side of the aisle.
"But when leaders on one side are voicing a strong opinion -- in this case, the Republicans arguing that the sky is falling on the economy because of deficits, tax and spend liberalism, and over-regulation of business -- and the other side is either silent or echoing GOP talking points -- the average voter hears what sounds like a consensus and starts to mouth it.
"Then pollsters start to pick up in their polls precisely the view they have been promulgating and elites have been putting into the minds and mouths of ordinary citizens, rendering elected officials all the more afraid of bucking what is now the conventional wisdom. And the result is a self-fulfilling prophecy."
"The 3 Wings of the Republican Party: The Crazies, the Corporatists ... and Democrats." By Drew Westen, June 20, 2011 [also posted under "Articles"]
[Below] "Our review of a broad range of reputable polls on economic issues finds a big difference between the policy solutions that dominate the discussion among policymakers and media pundits and what the majority of average citizens would like to be brought to the forefront."
NEW! "The American Majority Project Polling," May 9th, 2011
"Rasmussen Poll on Wisconsin Dispute May Be Biased." By NATE SILVER, February 21, 2011
[Below] As the polling reported here shows, the Republicans are strenuously avoiding dealing with the concerns of "the American people" that their leadership constantly claims to speak for:
"It's Still The Jobs." By Robert Borosage, January 18, 2011
"America Not as Politically Conservative as You Think." By Lee Drutman | Miller-McCune | Report, January 14, 2011
Aggregate numbers can be misleading. Look at the breakdown.
"Poll: Most Americans Support Health Care Reform or Want to Make it More Progressive." By Zaid Jilani | Sourced from ThinkProgress, December 30, 2010
[Below] "The key findings of the study are:
"1. Perceptions of Misleading and False Information
"An overwhelming majority of voters said that they encountered misleading or false information in the last election, with a majority saying that this occurred frequently and occurred more frequently than usual.
"2. Evidence of Misinformation Among Voters
"The poll found strong evidence that voters were substantially misinformed on many of the issues prominent in the election campaign, including the stimulus legislation, the healthcare reform law, TARP, the state of the economy, climate change, campaign contributions by the US Chamber of Commerce and President Obama's birthplace. In particular, voters had perceptions about the expert opinion of economists and other scientists that were quite different from actual expert opinion.
"3. Variations in Misinformation By Voting Behavior
"There were significant differences between those who voted Democratic and Republican in the level of misinformation on various issues that were prominent in the campaign and that respondents said were important in shaping their votes.
"4. Variations in Misinformation by Exposure to News Sources
"Consumers of all sources of media evidenced substantial misinformation, suggesting that false or misleading information is widespread in the general information environment, just as voters say they perceive it to be. In most cases increasing exposure to news sources decreased misinformation; however, for some news sources on some issues, higher levels of exposure increased misinformation."
"Misinformation and the 2010 Election: A Study of the US Electorate." World Public Opinion, December 10, 2010
This article illustrates the critical importance of particular words in polls:
"The Poll Democrats Need to Know About." By George Lakoff, April 15, 2010
** "If you believe in the eighteenth-century [Enlightenment] view of the mind...[y]ou will believe in polling and focus groups: you will believe that if you ask people what their interests are, they will be aware of them and will tell you, and will vote on it....
"If you believe in the eighteenth-century view of the mind, you will believe something like this, and you will be dead wrong!" George Lakoff, The Political Mind, p. 11