The University Record, July 3, 2000

Most Americans believe election polls are accurate and good for the country, U-M research shows

By Bernie DeGroat
News and Information Services

During this presidential election year, the news media will continue to bombard Americans with the latest results of public opinion polls—from coverage of the Bush-Gore race to the public’s views on campaign issues.

And while many politicians and pundits will continue to rail against the inaccuracy of polls, Americans believe overwhelmingly that polls are generally reliable and necessary—even if the public, itself, knows little about polling procedures, say U-M researchers.

In their analysis of a Gallup Organization survey of more than 1,000 respondents during the 1996 presidential campaign, political communication scholar Michael W. Traugott and graduate Mee-Eun Kang found that 87 percent of Americans believe that public opinion polls are a “good thing” and 68 percent say that most polls “work for the best interests” of the general public.

In addition, about two-thirds of Americans believe in the accuracy of polls in predicting election results, and an equally large number agree that poll returns on matters not dealing with elections are “right most of the time.”

However, when asked about its understanding of survey methods (e.g., sample size, response rate, wording and order of questions, margin of error, etc.), the public generally has a low level of knowledge, the researchers say. For example, 68 percent of Americans say that a sample of 1,500 or 2,000 people cannot accurately reflect the views of the nation’s population.

“This is worth noting, considering the public’s positive evaluation of polls and the large proportion that believe they are generally accurate, because it raises questions about the relationship between knowledge and these two attitudes,” says Traugott, professor of communication studies and senior research scientist at the Center for Political Studies.

“The finding raises a further question of whether or not the public values polls for some reason other than the quality of the information they contain. Conceivably these positive evaluations are a function of subscribing to a basic tenet of democratic theory that elected officials should be paying attention to the wishes of their constituents.”

The researchers say that perhaps the educational efforts of the two major organizations of pollsters, the American Association for Public Opinion Research and the National Council of Public Polls, should be “more vigorously directed to elite constituencies such as journalists, who are the conduits for the flow of so much public opinion data in the United States.”

Traugott and Kang’s analysis appears in the new book Election Polls, the News Media, and Democracy, edited by Traugott and Paul J. Lavrakas of Ohio State University. It is published by Chatham House Publishers of Seven Bridges Press LLC.

The book describes how journalists and media organizations use election polls, illustrates the effects of election polling and poll-based news coverage, and makes recommendations about how to improve election poll quality and the media’s use of the information contained in polls.