Polls and Democracy

Public opinion is a critical force in shaping and transforming society. Properly conducted and disseminated survey research gives the general public an opportunity for its voice to be heard.  Through opinion research the public, politicians, the media and other interested groups have access to accurate measures of public attitudes and intentions.

“Scientific” polling is among the most successful political developments of the last century.  Public opinion polls help guide policy by giving decision-makers impartial information about what the public wants.  Polls also alert the public to their own hopes, desires, and political goals.  They are mirrors, permitting individuals to understand where they fit into the political system.  Media reports of the results of opinion polls tell readers and listeners that their opinions are important, and can even sometimes be more important than the opinions of the elite.

The democratic urge towards participation and the journalistic desire to ask questions have merged to create the extensive media polling of the last 70 years.  Imagine a political system where the public is told what it thinks by its political leaders, where election winners have the ability to tell voters why they voted the way they did and where the government, when it looks for public input, asks only its friends what the public thinks.  The alternative to properly conducted polls is a public and a government exposed only to unscientific and probably inaccurate assertions about what people believe, in many cases presented by partisan individuals or organizations with a political agenda.

Public opinion polling seems today like a fixture of politics in a democracy, sometimes helpful and sometimes annoying.  But thanks to such polls, journalists can trace, step by step, the ups and downs of election campaigns and the rise and fall of political leaders’ popularity.  Political scientists obtain from them unique information on the electoral choices of different groups of citizens and on the motivations which explain those choices.  Sociologists can follow shifts of opinion on the major social problems and chart the evolution of values.  Political leaders and their opponents can trace the movements in their relative support between elections, as well as the impact of important national or international events on the public.  And voters can now make themselves heard at all times and compare their own views with those of others.

In democracies, poll results are recognized and credible sources for journalists, who need those sources in order to have authority and detachment.  Accurate reporting of polls in the news media keeps the government honest by not allowing misrepresentations of public opinion.  When new nations join the ranks of democracies, polls soon appear.  That is the case today in Eastern Europe, as it was yesterday in Latin America.  Totalitarian regimes, even when they claim to have won 99% of votes in single list elections, have never risked allowing opinion polls to be conducted in which their citizens might be able to say whether they would prefer a freely chosen regime.

Indeed opinion polls and freedom cannot be separated since the relationship between the pollsters and the polled presupposes a climate of confidence.  Published results become credible only when all opinions can be freely expressed, unpleasant as they might be to those in power, or one side of the debate or the other.

Because opinion polls are so valuable in democracies, those who conduct and report them must be both transparent and accurate.  They must disclose their methodology and provide realistic interpretations of data, as SoonerPoll does on its website.  The code of every national and international association of opinion researchers underscores the importance of responsible and unbiased reporting of poll results to the public interest.

Polls are part of the political process and subject to the same pressures as are communications by any other political parties, candidates, advisors, consultants and other political experts.  Polls are loved and hated, used and abused, and (in part because of their precision) subject to attack.  Nonetheless, polls have proven their place in America and the Democratic Republic founded here more than 200 years ago.

At SoonerPoll, we strive to always provide the best public opinion polling in the state of Oklahoma, with the type of reliability and transparency that has helped us earn the title of “Oklahoma’s public opinion pollster.”

Parts taken from ESOMAR/WAPOR Guide to Opinion Polls including the ESOMAR International Code of Practice for the Publication of Public Opinion Poll Results.