Gans says “public opinion polls do not always report public opinion”

Sociologist Herbert Gans suggests public opinion polls tells us something but may not really uncover public opinion:

The pollsters typically ask people whether they favor or oppose, agree or disagree, approve or disapprove of an issue, and their wording generally follows the centrist bias of the mainstream news media. They offer respondents only two sides (along with the opportunity to say “don’t know” or “unsure”), thus leaving out alternatives proposed by people with minority political views. Occasionally, one side is presented in stronger or more approving language — but by and large, poll questions maintains the balanced neutrality of the mainstream news media.

The pollsters’ reports and press releases usually begin with the asked question and then present tables with the statistical proportions of poll respondents giving each of the possible answers. However, the news media stories about the polls usually report only the results, and by leaving out the questions and the don’t knows, transform answers into opinions. When these opinions are shared by a majority, the news stories turn poll respondents into the public, thus giving birth to public opinion…

To be sure, poll respondents favor what they tell the pollsters they favor. But still, poll answers are not quite the same as their opinions. While their answers may reflect their already determined opinions, they may also express what they feel, or believe they ought to feel, at the moment. Pollsters should therefore distinguish between respondents with previously determined opinion and those with spur-of-the-moment answers to pollster questions.

However, only rarely do pollsters ask whether the respondents have thought about the question before the pollsters called, or whether they will ever do so again. In addition, polls usually do not tell us whether respondents have talked about the issue with family or friends, or whether they have expressed their answer cum opinion in other, more directly political ways.

Interesting thoughts. As far as surveys and polls go, they are only as good as the questions asked. But, I wonder if Gans’ suggestions might backfire: what if a majority of Americans don’t have intense feelings about an issue or haven’t thought about the issue before? What then should be done with the data? Polls today may suggest a majority of Americans care about an issue but the reverse might really be true: a lower percentage of Americans actually follow all of the issues. Gans seems to suggest it is the active opinions that matter more but this seems like it could lead to all sorts of legislation and other action based on a minority of public opinion. Of course, this may be it really works now through the actions and lobbying of influential people…

It sounds like the real issue here is how much public opinion, however it is measured, should factor into the decisions of politicians.

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