Why Do We Care About Polls?

By Conor Clarke

A few days ago John Sides published a reasonably snarky blog post about a piece I wrote last week: The case against polling. The basic argument of my piece was that polls are annoying because (1) we should want our democratic institutions to operate according to pre-established mechanisms, not random quasi-referenda; (2) Lots of polls are wrong or misleading (duh); and (3) Present opinion polls can affect future opinion polls, due to information cascades. My feeling is that one's opinions should change after an exchange of reasons, not after he or she acquires the knowledge that one opinion is more popular than another.

Anyway, John gave me an exchange of reasons. Since he studies this stuff for a living, he's certainly got the moral authority to get snarky. And I think he makes some good points, some of which I find convincing and some of which I need to think about a bit more. But what I think is missing from John's post is the affirmative case for polls. (And I mean political polls -- how many people support Obama's health care plan and so forth -- not social science research polls.) Weakening the case against polling strikes me as a necessary but insufficient defense. What good reason do we have (besides morbid curiosity) to consume polls we see in the morning's paper? What value is there in letting the public know what the public already thinks?

Update: I notice that Ed Kilgore also weighs in, in a damning-with-high-flattery kind of way.