When it comes to the polls, don't throw out the baby with the bathwater 📊 November 29, 2020

This poll kills fascists

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Dear reader,

I try not to take myself too seriously, but I do think the argument that people are wrong to throw out the baby (polls) with the bathwater is worth making in the wake of the election. So here is another newsletter that talks about the value of public opinion polls in our democracy, especially in regards to giving voice to underrepresented groups.

As a note, I am busy writing my book, so today’s letter is only slightly edited. Please compile all typos and send them to me in an angry email about my various shortcomings in the spelling and grammar department.

I hope you all had a happy Thanksgiving holiday — or, if not a happy one, at least one filled with lots of pie.

—Elliott


Don't throw the baby out with the bathwater

This poll kills fascists

One wonderful thing about being a young pseudo-academic without formal training is the joyous intellectual journey of stumbling upon work that really speaks to me. This week, in doing some research for the final chapters of my book, I read Sidney Verba’s 1995 presidential address to the American Political Science Association, entitled “The Citizen as Respondent: Sample Surveys and American Democracy.” His address usually gets cited for the following quote about polls:

Surveys produce just what democracy is supposed to produce-equal representation of all citizens. The sample survey is rigorously egalitarian; it is designed so that each citizen has an equal chance to participate and an equal voice when participating.

But it was the concluding section that really hammered home a large chunk of how I think about government by public opinion:

I am arguing that one has to view surveys in the context of the participatory process, which exists with or without surveys. Some argue that surveys create a leadership which follows the polls rather than leading. But surveys per se do not make some leaders abandon leadership to follow public whim. In the absence of surveys, such leaders would still sway with the wind of opinion. The wind would just blow from different quarters, more likely from the better parts of town.

Polls are thus a way to give everyone a voice, but they do not reflect the strongest of voices. The information polls communicate may be equal, but it is also limited. And the limitation derives from the strongest feature of polls, the fact that they represent all citizens equally. What message is sent by a method that gives voice to all citizens, with little regard for their level of information or their motivation to participate, and one whose messages are all in response to questions selected by and posed by strangers at the door? Certainly, the messages are not the clearest.

One limitation on the role of surveys relates to agendas. First, because the initiative is taken by the surveyor rather than the surveyed, the agenda reflects
the interests of the poll taker. It gives the inarticulate a chance to express their views and their concerns, but only on the issues that the surveyor thinks are important. Second, since surveyors have their own agenda-to increase readership, or find information to help a particular candidate, or test a pet academic theory-the set of issues covered may be very different from that which
is on the mind of the respondents.

Another limitation has to do with the questions asked: The answers received depend on them. The voice of the citizenry, especially the otherwise quiescent who are of special interest here, can sound very different depending on what is asked.

There is another qualification on the ability of surveys to equalize the voice of the resource poor. Few resources may be needed to respond to a survey, but real resources are required to conduct a survey. Although the selection of respondents may not be biased, the selection of when to have a survey and what to ask (and how to interpret the data) certainly are. This gives a louder voice to the more affluent in several ways. Well-heeled campaigners and wealthy interests can afford to take their own polls. They can then use them as they want, including selective reporting. On top of that, to do a poll one needs to hire professionals, which takes money, and campaigns thus value contributions of money rather than time. Money is, in turn, much more stratified than time; the affluent have money (of course), but time is more equally available to both the advantaged and the disadvantaged (Verba, Schlozman, and Brady 1995, chapter 10). Thus, the survey process reintroduces some of the socioeconomic stratification found in political activity through decisions as to when, what, and whom to survey.

Another qualification is that what people answer — what they think is important, how they evaluate policies and politicians-is in good part a reaction to what they hear from the media or from governing officials. Thus, the questions asked and the answers given do not come from a separate autonomous public but are affected by the processes of politics and policy that they may, in turn, influence. As in so many other areas of politics and political analysis, there is a serious problem of endogeneity.

Finally, polls provide low-grade information. Answers to closed questions do not capture the richness of individuals' views. And the views, themselves, are often ill-formed. Indeed, it is commonplace to note that the opinions are often nonexistent until the question is asked and the respondent is faced with the necessity to answer.


This last point, about the quality of information in polls, needs qualification. We have all been trained to be suspicious of survey results on issues far from the consciousness of respondents, when they are asked for opinions on some policy matter. But surveys can give better information than that. It all depends on the subject of the questions. Some information about the public is fairly solid-its positions on issues, its social circumstances, its needs; people know the answers, and the answers are stable. In some of the examples I gave above, questions were asked about whether the respondents participated in Social Security or in AFDC and whether they had faced serious problems paying for necessities in the past year. These are important questions about citizen need, and the individual citizen-of whatever level of sophistication-knows the answers better than anyone. Citizens know their own life circumstances. They also know their own values, and although their values may be in conflict one with another (whose values are not?), they are likely to be fairly stable.

And here’s his final paragraph:

Political inequality is, thus, embedded deeply in American society. Can the ideal of political equality be achieved? More modestly, can we move closer to that ideal? It is hard to see how. The constraint on political participation from unequal resources derives from the basic institutions in society, from differential education and differential economic position. Mobilization breaks the pattern from time to time, but the system of mobilization is also embedded in the same set of instruments, and mobilization generally reinforces the inequality of political voice. Surveys, if done well and used honestly (two significant qualifications), may help, but they can hardly change things. Greater equality in our basic institutions-greater income equality and, more important perhaps, greater educational equality-would certainly help equalize political resources. That is a tall order, and I certainly have no scheme to achieve it nor any expectation that others do either.

Now, in truth, I had first read Verba’s address some time ago and was only reminded of it this week by a column on the unrepresentative nature of ballot initiatives by Sasha Issenberg. I largely agree with him. He writes:

In September, a survey by the Institute of Governmental Studies at the University of California at Berkeley showed that just 39 percent of Californians backed Proposition 22, the measure to exempt apps from the state’s independent-contracting law. Uber, DoorDash, Lyft, Instacart and Postmates put more than $200 million behind it, most going to television and digital ads. If public polling is to be trusted, about four-fifths of undecided voters appear to have broken for the side that spent exponentially more money trying to persuade them in the closing weeks of the race.

Yet despite these complications, ballot measure results are irresistible for those who want to argue that voters are actually closer to them on the issues, and that their side’s candidates are simply too moderate and cautious to win over the public. Reviewing results in Florida, where the minimum-wage increase did much better than Joe Biden did in most counties, New York labor activist and former Democratic congressional candidate Jonathan Tasini argued that “Biden should have put a wildly popular Amendment 2 at the forefront of his campaign” there. Likewise, in Arizona, the passage of Proposition 208 by about 3.5 percentage points, a much wider margin than the narrow presidential contest, proved that tax increases were “more popular than Biden,” Tasini wrote.

But even if ballot measures lend themselves to this sort of analysis — the comparison of electoral margins, down to precinct-by-precinct pointillism — we should resist the desire to imagine them as an idealized counterfactual election, in which citizens can choose the best policies without having to worry about flawed candidates. Instead, think of ballot measures as more like lobbying campaigns, but with a target audience of voters rather than legislators. The real factor in victory is not which policy citizens would support in a vacuum but which interest groups you can get on your side.

Taken together, Verba and Issenberg’s work implies — at least to me — that polls are one of the only methods we have to truly take “the pulse of democracy” on the issues that matter most to Americans. When conducted properly, they are among the most democratizing tools in the republicans’ toolbelt (note the lower-case ‘r’.)


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What I'm Reading and Working On

I have no book recommendations this week. For non-political material, I thought that this Atlantic cover story on “The Last Children of Down Syndrome” was spectacularly insightful, and something I do not think enough about.


Thanks for reading!

Thanks for reading. I’ll be back in your inbox next Sunday. In the meantime, follow me online or reach out via email if you’d like to engage. I’d love to hear from you. If you want more content, I publish subscriber-only posts on Substack 1-3 times each week.


Photo contest

Thanks to everyone who sent in pictures of their puppers (no cats!?!) this week. If I have not thanked you directly, this is me appreciating you brightening my day. Marshall sent in this picture of his “WFH seat-stealer Annie,” who reminded me of my grandmother’s schnauzer named Smartie. I miss them both dearly. As someone with back pain, I must ask Marshall to get a proper desk chair!

For next week’s contest, send me a photo of your pet(s) to elliott[AT]gelliottmorris[DOT]com!