Why Public Policy Polling (PPP) should not conduct “goofy polls”

Here is an explanation why the polling firm Public Policy Polling (PPP) conducts “goofy polls”:

But over the past year, PPP has been regularly releasing goofy, sometimes pointless polls about every other month. In early January, one such survey showed that Congress was less popular than traffic jams, France and used-car salesmen. According to their food-centric surveys released this week, Americans clearly prefer Ronald McDonald over Burger King for President; Democrats are more likely to get their chicken at KFC than Chick-fil-A, and Republicans are more apt to order pancakes than waffles. “We’re obviously doing a lot of polling on the key 2014 races,” says Jensen. “That kind of polling is important. We also like to do some fun polls.”

PPP, which has a left-leaning reputation, releases fun polls in part because they’re entertaining but mostly in an attempt to set themselves apart as an approachable polling company. Questions for polls are sometimes crowd-sourced via Twitter. The outfit does informal on-site surveys about what state they should survey next. And when the results of offbeat polls come out, the tidbits have potential to go viral. “We’re not trying to be the next Gallup or trying to be the next Pew,” Jensen says. “We’re really following a completely different model where we’re known for being willing to poll on stuff other people aren’t willing to poll on.” Like whether Republicans are willing to eat sushi (a solid 64% are certainly not).

Which means polls about “Mexican food favorability” are a publicity stunt on some level. Jensen says PPP, which has about 150 clients, gets more business from silly surveys and the ethos it implies than they do cold-calling. One such client was outspoken liberal Bill Maher, who hired PPP to poll for numbers he could use on his HBO show Real Time. That survey, released during the 2012 Republican primaries, found that Republicans were more likely to vote for a gay candidate than an atheist candidate—and that conservative virgins preferred Mitt Romney, while Republicans with 20 or more sexual partners strongly favored Ron Paul.

Jensen argues that the offbeat polls do provide some useful information. One query from the food survey, for instance, asks respondents whether they consider themselves obese: about 20% of men and women said yes, well under the actual American obesity rate of 35.7%.  Information like that could give health crusaders some fodder for, say, crafting public education PSAs. Still, the vast majority of people are only going to use these polls to procrastinate at work: goodness knows it’s hard to resist a “scientific” analysis of partisans’ favorite pizza toppings (Republicans like olives twice as much!).

Here is my problem with this strategy: it is short-sighted and privileges PPP. While polling firms do need to market themselves as there are a number of organizations that conduct national polls, this strategy can harm the whole field. When the average American sees the results of “goofy polls,” is it likely to improve their view of the polling in general? I argue there is already enough suspicion in America about polls and their validity without throwing in polls that don’t tell us as much. This suspicion contributes to lower response rates across the board, a problem for all survey researchers.

In the end, the scientific nature of polling takes a hit when any firm is willing to reduce polling to marketing.

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