There are three groups of people who consistently have a detrimental affect on American politics: Republicans, Democrats, and pollsters. Of this trio, the most nefarious are the pollsters. While politicians have the ability to create public policy, pollsters have the power to craft public opinion.
Although opinion polls are often treated as if they were harmless detritus of the news-cycle, they are powerful tools for promoting overconfidence and slip-shod reasoning. Take, for instance, two of the worst types of polls—those that purportedly measure “favorability” and the “job approval rating” of politicians such as the president and members of Congress. Such polls might be useful if the general public were aware of the president and legislators’ duties, and if we could appeal to a single, objective standard to judge polls’ relevance and faithfulness to truth. But we don’t. Instead, polls create an illusion of assurance, allowing us to fool ourselves into thinking we have precisely quantified our vague qualitative judgments.
Consider, for example, a recent CNN poll that found that 54 percent of Americans approve of President Obama’s job performance. From that single data point, you might think that the majority of the country approves of the President’s job performance. But the actual results are mixed:
“On specific issues, the president’s approval rating is over 50 percent on only three out of 11 items tested, and all three—terrorism, Afghanistan, and Iraq—are foreign or security issues,” says CNN Polling Director Keating Holland. “But his approval rating on every domestic issue listed in the poll is well below 50 and on most of them—including the economy, health care, taxes, and the budget deficit—his rating has remained flat or dropped since the start of the year.”
Only one in four says they approve of how the president is handling high gas prices. And the survey indicates that six in ten think that things are going badly in the country today.
On the vast majority of the items tested (8 of 11) the public expresses disapproval of Obama’s job performance and yet the overall result implies that they approve of the job he is doing. How does that make any sense? It doesn’t. By the alchemical process of applied statistics, the pollsters have turned our disapproval into approval. Unfortunately, such distortions are a common failing of opinion polls.
Another prime example is polling on the state of the economy. “It’s the economy, stupid,” a slogan often quoted during Bill Clinton’s 1992 presidential campaign, implied that the economy was a determinative issue for voters. However, judging the favorability of a politician based on this issue would require that the average voter understands, for one, how the president’s job affects the economy; second, which data is relevant in judging a politician’s economic fitness; and third, how to find accurate data on which to base the opinion.
Unless the poll is taken at, say, the University of Chicago’s Economics Department, the likelihood of the average respondent meeting this standard is depressingly low. Because the people surveyed have no reliable criteria for forming their opinion on this issue, they tend to “go with their gut,” relying on emotion and intuition.
And there is reason to believe voters’ gut feelings are overly prone to pessimism. The late 1990s were an era of Dot-Com millionaires and a booming economy. Yet a CNN poll taken in April 1996 found:
• 69 percent of those surveyed thought their economic outlook was either mixed or negative.
• 72 percent rated economic conditions as only fair (52%) or poor (20%).
• 52 percent considered the “country’s economic problems” to be the most important factor in the Presidential race.
Surprisingly, though Democrats often claim that President Clinton was responsible for economic growth during the 1990s, opinion polls at the time give cause to doubt that. Only 28 percent of people surveyed believed that Clinton’s economic policies improved the economy, while 12 percent believed he was hurting the economy. The vast majority—58 percent—said that his policies were not having an effect either way.
So if the president’s approval rating isn’t based on economic conditions, what is it based on? If former President Bush’s ratings are any indication the answer is “pure emotion.” On September 11, 2001, Bush’s approval ratings hovered around 56 percent. One month later, when Operation Enduring Freedom began, Bush’s rating jumped to over 90 percent. Even Bush’s most ardent supporters would have to admit that he didn’t become 40 percent more “favorable” that month. It was not the president that changed but our national mood—and our emotional response to the American presidency.
Opinion polls are a prime example of what sociologist Daniel Boorstin called “pseudo-events.” A pseudo-event, according to Boorstin, is a happening that possesses the following characteristics:
• It is not spontaneous, but comes about because someone has planned, planted, or incited it. Typically, it is not a train wreck or an earthquake, but an interview.
• It is planted primarily (not always exclusively) for the immediate purpose of being reported or reproduced. Therefore, its occurrence is arranged for the convenience of the reporting or reproducing media. Its success is measured by how widely it is reported. Time relations in it are commonly fictitious or factitious; the announcement is given out in advance “for future release” and written as if the event had occurred in the past. The question, “Is it real?” is less important than, “Is it newsworthy?”
• Its relation to the underlying reality of the situation is ambiguous. Its interest arises largely from this very ambiguity. Concerning a pseudo-event the question, “What does it mean?” has a new dimension. While the news interest in a train wreck is in what happened and in the real consequences, the interest in an interview is always, in a sense, in whether it really happened and in what might have been the motives. Did the statement really mean what it said? Without some of this ambiguity a pseudo-event cannot be very interesting.
• Usually it is intended to be a self-fulfilling prophecy. The hotel’s thirtieth-anniversary celebration, by saying that the hotel is a distinguished institution, actually makes it one.
News agencies often sponsor polls so that they can report on the very poll they created. Instead of reporting the news, they create a pseudo-event to report on. Ironically, this information is processed as “news” and helps shape a person’s judgment on the issue being polled.
If you are told that the president’s approval rating is 95 percent, then you are more likely also to approve of the job he is doing. Likewise, if his rating is low, then your opinion is also likely to be low. If you take a view contrary to the poll’s suggested opinion, then you will be the one put on the defensive—even if your opinion is based on a weighing of relevant facts and evidence.
This process of creating pseudo-events even fools pollsters. “Polling is merely an instrument for gauging public opinion,” claimed pollster George Gallup. “When a president or any other leader pays attention to poll results, he is, in effect, paying attention to the views of the people. Any other interpretation is nonsense.”
On the contrary, it is Gallup’s claim that is nonsense. Polls are not gauges of public opinion—at least not reasoned opinion. The truth of the matter, as Winston Churchill noted, is that, “There is no such thing as public opinion. There is only published opinion.” Indeed, these published opinions are nothing more than public perceptions produced by pollsters, mere aggregations of our ignorance. And we all become dumber by treating them seriously.
Joe Carter is former Web Editor of First Things and the co-author of How to Argue Like Jesus: Learning Persuasion from History’s Greatest Communicator. His previous articles for “On the Square” can be found here.
Joe Carter, Why the News Makes Us Dumb