The Myth of Polling

The obvious problem with the polls you see all the time about how the public feels about such and such an issue is that these surveys don't tell you whether the people actually care about the issue or not. Taegan Goddard, meanwhile, glosses The Opinion Makers forthcoming from David W. Moore:

The author — a former senior editor of the Gallup Poll — says that today's opinion polls misfire due to an intrinsic methodological problem: survey results don't differentiate between "those who express deeply held views and those who have hardly, if at all, thought about an issue."

Kevin Drum is puzzled:

This is disturbing. Either Moore managed to find a publisher for a book thesis about as obvious as "college students like to drink," or else Moore's thesis actually isn't as bog obvious as I think it is. I'm not sure which is worse.

Or there's a third option: his thesis really is as obvious as I think it is, but everyone keeps pretending not to know it anyway. Which means it's worth a book. Good luck, David!

I think that option number three is correct. Nobody who thinks about this stuff a lot could possibly fail to have thought of Moore's point, but at the same time politicians and their aides very frequently do act as if they don't understand this. I think the reason is that referring to polling data, even bad data, is a good CYA mechanism when you need to make difficult decisions. A consultant who says "we don't have any valid data on this question, but I think you should do X" is going to get blamed if X doesn't turn out right. But if he can point to some data, and say that he's not making the recommendation, he's just pointing to the numbers then if things go south it isn't really his fault.

This is a pretty common organizational flaw. The natural tendency is to try to maximize whatever it is that you have a good measurement of, even if the measured quantity is only questionably related to what you're trying to do. Politicians know how to get an issue poll in the field, and there aren't great metrics for getting the information you would really want. So campaigns often go to war with the data they have, even while knowing that the data's no good.