Are Polls Good for Democracy?

A day in which two big Obama polls have been released (NYT poll here and Pew poll here) seems like a decent enough excuse to revisit the question of the value of political polls. Mark Blumenthal, Ed Kilgore and John Sides (twice!) have all been kind enough to write detailed responses to my original thoughts on the subject. And I'm pretty sure they are winning the argument. Nonetheless,  I don't think we're at Waterloo just yet, and I want to respond to some of their points.

This is dredging up an old controversy, so here is a quick recap: I wrote a short piece for the Atlantic a few weeks ago ("Get Rid of Polls") that piece made three basic points: (1) we should want our democratic institutions to operate according to pre-established mechanisms, not random and constant quasi-referenda; (2) Lots of polls are wrong or misleading or insufficient snapshots of "actual" preferences; and (3) Present opinion polls can affect future opinion polls, due to information cascades. (Which offends my romantic sense of how and why opinions should change.) In a follow-up I added a fourth point, which was mostly a desperate attempt at burden-shifting: Even if you disagree with the three points above, what's the affirmative case for polling?

Well, Mark and John and Ed responded to my three points and answered my question and more. So, in no particular order, here's a few thoughts on the issues they raise [looking back over it after writing, I think the debate probably boils down to #'s 4, 6 and 7]:

1. Let me make one big concession at the start. I wouldn't vote for a law than banned polls, and were I dictator of the universe I wouldn't want to outlaw them. (I'm a fan of free speech; I'd get that first amendment tattoo in a heartbeat; etc.) The position that I would feel more comfortable defending is something like "polls are on balance a bad thing." Or, even more milquetoasty: "polls are not the best use of newspaper resources."

2. I hope that goes along way towards addressing the main thrust of Ed Kilgore's argument -- namely, that I am weirdly in favor of reducing the total amount of information that exists in the public sphere. I think it's fair to say, with Ed, that there should be a strong presumption in favor of putting additional information in the public sphere. But I think that's very different from saying the current level of information is optimal or desirable.

3. I think there is an easy extension of points #1 and #2: Producing information isn't free. A dollar that the New York Times spends on a poll is a dollar that it isn't spending on a Baghdad bureau or a congressional beat reporter. Well, that's not really how tradeoffs work.  But the general point -- you have to measure something against its opportunity cost -- is one I agree with and one that is relevant here. So one question to consider might be this: Could the resources that the Times and the Post spend on polls be better spent elsewhere?

4. I am happy concede John Sides' empirical point that there's little evidence that politicians are "buffeted to and fro by the winds of the capricious public," as expressed in polls. I am also willing to concede that politicians do in fact use polls "to find out how best to sell their ideas." But I'm not sure what this proves. If politicians become more adept at selling their ideas to the public, does that benefit the public? That sounds like a question with a complicated answer. On the other hand, I feel reasonably confident saying that it is not the purpose of the media, at least as traditionally understood, to provide a consulting service by which politicians can hone their rhetorical skills.  

Presented by

Conor Clarke is the editor, with Michael Kinsley, of Creative Capitalism. He was previously a fellow at The Atlantic and an editor at The Guardian. More

Conor Clarke is the editor, with Michael Kinsley, of Creative Capitalism, an economics blog that was recently published in book form by Simon and Schuster. He was previously a fellow at The Atlantic and an editor at The Guardian. He is also on Twitter.

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