Our phone is ringing. Both of us hurry to pick up a remote hand set. Gretchen stops what she’s doing in the kitchen and I lurch from my chair, banging my guitar on the edge of the music stand. I grumble, and stop as Gretchen shouts, “I’ve got it. Out of area,” she adds, reading the caller ID message. She lets the call go to the answering machine.
This behavior, in one form or another, has happened too many times in recent weeks. We’re telling the answering machine to pick up right away. We’ll call you back if you aren’t a political survey.
This resentment and rejection of the intruding, unwelcome phone call is not uncommon, and it is causing problems for the companies who rely on people to answer calls seeking their opinions and preferences. Some people say the reports of public opinion polls are good for democracy and thus warrant exception from the Do Not Call registry. Some aren’t so sure about that, especially since the response rate on such surveys has fallen so dramatically that pollsters are struggling to account for it. Response rates are typically in the single digits, according to Jill Lepore, writing in the Nov. 16 issue of New Yorker magazine.
“Even if more people could be persuaded to answer the phone, polling would still be teetering on the edge of disaster,” she wrote, noting that more than 40 percent of adults here no longer have land lines and cell phones are off-limits to polling.
In 1971, I took a seminar in graduate school at the University of Wisconsin-Madison on using social science in journalism. We studied the use of public opinion surveys as well as the precautions to be used in reporting them, such as knowing the makeup of the questions, the sponsorship of the survey and the statistical margin of error. It was a good primer for what has followed in the growth of polling.
Two years later, in 1973, CBS and Time did their first media poll. Today we get a steady diet of poll results: Did Trump tank in Iowa? Will Walker’s numbers improve? Who will be allowed to debate in the Republican nomination race? The polls make entertaining reading, just the thing for the media in whatever form, almost as good as sports coverage with winners and losers, trends and stats, lots of statistics.
But polls are not a sufficiently reliable measure for us to use in such basic functions of democracy as deciding which candidates may participate in a debate.
And there’s another problem with this. I see polls being cited in stories without the cautions on detecting poll bias, such as those listed in the Associated Press Stylebook. The lengthy set of instructions concludes with this: “No matter how good the poll, no matter how wide the margin, the poll does not say one candidate will win an election. Polls can be wrong and the voters can change their minds before they cast their ballots.”
The AP advises stories should be “carefully worded to avoid exaggerating the meaning of the poll results.”
Indeed, not only can they be wrong, but they might not even represent public opinion, which, according to one sociologist, exists only in the complex interchange of ideas, debates and conversations among individuals, organizations and influential people in our society.
American sociologist Herbert Blumer, writing in the American Sociological Review in 1948, said, “Certainly the mere fact that the interviewee either gives or does not give an opinion does not tell you whether he is participating in the formation of public opinion as it is being built up functionally in the society.”
And there is this: I don’t want any politician to be basing his or her stands on issues on polling. That’s not what representative government is all about.
Lepore’s article bears the following dark thought: “Polling may never have been less reliable, or more influential, than it is now.”
I’ll reserve my participation for the ultimate poll – voting. Our phone no longer rings.