A historical past and defence of opinion polling

Energy In Numbers: How Polls Work and Why We Want Them. By G. Elliott Morris. W.W. Norton; 224 pages; $28.95 and £21.99

Within the Twenties, George Gallup sought to develop the circulation of his pupil newspaper. To achieve readers’ consideration, he revealed a misogynistic article entitled “The Unattractive Girls”; it gained his pupil rag so many new followers that the Day by day Iowan shortly grew to become a worthwhile newspaper. Readers claimed to be desirous about editorials and information, not comics or gossip columns, however Gallup was proper to suspect in any other case.

He started extra cautious research, actually trying over readers’ shoulders to watch which items really seized their consideration. It was the start of his journey from journalist to father of recent opinion polls. G. Elliott Morris, a knowledge journalist at The Economist, has written each a historical past and a defence of opinion polling; his story about George Gallup hints at lots of the matters this energetic e-book explores.

There’s a elementary downside with polls: when pollsters ask questions, the solutions they obtain could also be lower than candid. There may be additionally the simply neglected indisputable fact that opinion polling has at all times been about making a living, with discovering the reality as an secondary motive. And there’s the disheartening reality that, whereas opinion pollsters attempt to discern what folks assume and really feel, what folks assume and really feel will be ignoble. Gallup debased his pupil newspaper to please his readers, and politicians might debase policymaking to please the voters.

Gallup himself was unabashed. In 1940 he co-wrote “The Pulse of Democracy”, a e-book which argued that profitable governments could be “aware of the typical opinion of mankind”, an opinion which “for the primary time in democratic historical past” might now be repeatedly and objectively measured. Mr Morris concurs. “Polls are a distillation of the overall will first,” he writes approvingly, “and every thing else second.”

Whereas most individuals consider polls as a prediction of election outcomes, Mr Morris exhibits how they grew to become a continuing enter to political decision-making. Gallup’s near-forgotten up to date, Emil Hurja, was well-known within the Nineteen Thirties because the “Wizard of Washington”. His knowledge on public opinion formed the selections of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s administration. The Simulmatics Company, run by social scientists from the Massachusetts Institute of Expertise and Yale, and armed with the newest computer systems, supplied exact (if not at all times correct) predictions as to how every of John F. Kennedy’s positions would have an effect on his reputation with completely different voter segments. Richard Nixon was a prolific procurer of polls.

Pundits then and now fearful that if politicians obsessed over opinion surveys, policymaking would develop into an act of followership slightly than management. Mr Morris suggests as a substitute that it’s higher to have a political class that attends to public opinion than one which ignores it, and declares that “public opinion polling has been one of the democratising forces in American political historical past.” He even speculates that the Vietnam conflict might need ended far earlier if solely Lyndon Johnson had been as desirous about polling as Nixon was.

Mr Morris doesn’t draw back from the horror tales. He eviscerates some influential however deceptive surveys of mortality in Iraq and grumbles about partisan push pollsters, who ask loaded questions comparable to: “Would you continue to vote for [John] McCain if you happen to knew he had intercourse with prostitutes and gave his spouse venereal illness?”

Given the subtitle of the e-book, it’s shocking that Mr Morris waits till the second half to correctly talk about sampling, probably the most elementary thought in polling. When he describes the fallout of Donald Trump’s win in 2016 for pundits and pollsters, Mr Morris mixes a vivid journalistic account of recent polling failures with a realized however difficult vary of acronyms and technical particulars.

Polling is flawed, and a few of these flaws appear unfixable. However Mr Morris’s repeated chorus is that the critics of opinion surveys overstate their case. If you happen to assume polls can mislead, simply strive understanding the voters with out them. Alas for pollsters, they’ll at all times be anticipated to forecast elections. From an early fiasco in 1936, by Gallup’s “Dewey Defeats Truman” humiliation in 1948, to Mr Trump’s allegedly not possible triumph in 2016, Mr Morris sorrowfully reminds us that pollsters are judged by outcomes. These outcomes might range. 

Written for and first revealed in The Economist on 26 August 2022.