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Welcome to Beyond the Polls

by Jean Johnson

Tuesday, December 3rd, 2013

Welcome to Beyond the Polls, our regular commentary on what Americans are thinking about pivotal issues our country and communities face. Each month, we offer a second look — a deeper look — at public opinion. We try to put survey results in context and enrich them by drawing on our extensive experience listening to citizens in both research and community settings over the years.

Our aim is to explore and understand the hopes, values, concerns, and priorities people bring to today’s issues — the public questions and controversies we think about every day. Just as important, we want to juxtapose the views that polling typically captures with what happens to those views when citizens have a chance to absorb and weigh different options for addressing issues and hear what other citizens have to say about them.

So what led us to develop Beyond the Polls? Here is some of what’s behind the series:

  • Polls often reflect top-of-the-head thinking. Surveys capture what people may be thinking at any given time, depending on how they’re feeling about things, what they know, what they’ve heard, and what’s happening in their own lives and communities and in the media. Unless we also take a look at this context, polling results have limited value.
  • The public's views are not static. Polling results can change over time as people move beyond this top-of-the-head thinking and consider the questions at hand more deeply. As Pubic Agenda co-founder Dan Yankelovich has pointed out, people's views tend to shift based on whether or not they have had time and opportunities to learn about an issue, consider it from different perspectives and decide where they stand. When they do this, sometimes their thinking becomes clearer. Sometimes their outlook becomes less dogmatic and more flexible. Sometimes people re-arrange their priorities as they recognize and think through trade-offs. Sometimes people, by talking with others, discover something that is very important to them that may not have been evident beforehand. Polls can fail to discriminate between top-of-the-head reactions and these more stable views.
  • Leaders cherry-pick at times. With so many polls available, and so many people quoting them for all sorts of reasons, what appears in the media can be piecemeal and, at times, misleading. In addition to the reasons we mention above, survey results often change depending on how questions are asked and what aspect of an issue a survey organization chooses to address. Sometimes pundits, elected officials, candidates and others zero in on one or two poll results—the ones that best match their own preferences—and blithely ignore the rest. We don’t do that. We examine and comment on all the best polls and look at what they’re saying—taken together.
  • Polling can’t substitute for democracy. Don't get us wrong, we love opinion polls. Public Agenda designs and conducts surveys, and the National Issues Forums and the Kettering Foundation regularly consult opinion research in their work to get citizens talking about tough problems and working together to solve them. But democracy means much more than conveying poll results on citizens’ preferences to elected officials. Citizens have a real job to do grappling with tough issues and listening to the views of others.
  • Sometimes polls are on the wrong side of history. Because all of us move through a learning curve as we think through issues and hear from others, polls can change dramatically over time. In some of the most important moments of our history, public opinion lagged behind the arc of change. For example, few public views have shifted more radically than those toward women in the workforce. In a 1938 Gallup poll, more than three quarters of respondents disapproved of "a married woman earning money in business or industry if she has a husband capable of supporting her." Twenty-two percent approved. In the late 1980s, opinion had nearly reversed, with 77 percent approving and 22 percent disapproving. These days, the question seems outdated. Gallup and other polling organizations are now asking questions about equal pay for women and men staying home to care for the children. Historical shifts like this mean we need to view polling as one piece of information. Polling is not a full or complete rendering of what the American people support, or what they may come to support — and consider indispensable — over time.

We’re eager to hear your responses to Beyond the Polls. Sign up to receive an email update when we have a new Beyond the Polls post. And, if you have a question or issue that could benefit from our review, let us know. We’d be pleased to consider adding it to our list of potential topics. Interested in continuing the conversation? Join us on Twitter with the hashtag #BeyondPolls.



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