Polls Shape Public Opinion, Not Reflect It

If I were a cynic, I might say that marketing is when you lie to your customers and market research [...]

October 30 2008 by David Wanetick


If I were a cynic, I might say that marketing is when you lie to your customers and market research is when you lie to yourself. Fortunately, most people don’t believe everything they read. Neither should they believe the accuracy of the incessant polling that is inundating the airwaves during this election season. The fact that polls covering the same issues, in the same states, conducted during the same narrowly-defined time-span, proves this point. 

 Here are some reasons to be skeptical of the accuracy of political polls:

  • Benjamin Disraeli said, “There are liars. There are damn liars. And then there are statisticians.” Apparently Disraeli never encountered the polling phenomena. Polls can be created to indicate whatever claim the sponsor wishes. The narrative before questioning begins, the order of the questions, the specific words utilized in the question, the timing of the polls all influence responses. So too can the perceived race and gender of the questioner influence results.
  • Respondents who hold unpopular views (at least measured by polls) tend to suppress their own views by declining to participate in polls or by voicing the popular views when interviewed by pollsters.
  • Polling results are skewed by pressing participants to opine on issues for which they have little knowledge, concern or commitment. As a result, participants feel compelled to respond to the questions presented to them in order to be perceived as intelligent. For instance, in 1986, a third of respondents to a University of Cincinnati poll expressed an opinion about a fictitious Public Affairs Act.
  • Nonresponse rates run as high as 70% and distort polling results. Most polling agencies simply find it too expensive to target prospects with highly comparable demographic characteristics to those that decline participation in surveys.
  • The more than 13% of Americans who use cell phones to the exclusion of home phones present several problems for pollsters in contacting this demographic. First, there are liability issues associated with polling people when they are driving or engaging in other activities which require the callees’ attention. Second, since the callees’ pay for their incoming calls, they are especially unreceptive to participating in surveys. Third, the area codes associated with cell phones do not indicate where the target is actually located. The pollster may call a California area code and reach the target in New York far beyond business hours. Fourth, among the reasons that contacting cell phone users is more expensive for pollsters is that federal law prohibits calling any cell phone by the use of an automatic dialer.

While polls are unreliable in deciphering public sentiment, they can certainly help sway public opinion. Some of the luminaries in the world of polling have admitted as much. For instance, when Senator Ted Kennedy announced that he would run for president in 1979, Louis Harris, founder of Lou Harris and Associates said, “I am going to elect the next president.”

First, social validation is one of the primary tenets of human behavior. People have a tendency to conform their views to that of the majority, in part because relying on the supposed wisdom of the crowd relieves one of making a deviating decision. When the polls indicate that one candidate is consistently and overwhelmingly favored among the electorate, the results can be demoralization among the underdog’s supporters, complacency among the front-runner’s supporters as well as changes in fund raising ability and media coverage.

Another tenet of behavioral economics is called the “mere-measurement effect” which holds that when researchers measure people’s intentions, they affect the participant’s conduct. Thus, if pollsters ask an indifferent voter for whom he will vote, he is more inclined to cast his vote according to his whimsical response simply by virtue of having expressed that intention.

Most Americans would agree that the major media outlets help form opinion. Thus, when the media conducts their own polls, they are no longer reporting the news, they are making it. Among the major news organizations that have either developed their own polls or who regularly commission polls for their exclusive use are CNN, ABC News, NBC News, CBS News, The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal, Time, Newsweek, USA Today, The Los Angeles Times, and the Associated Press.

When reading results from polls, think more about the message that the sponsor is trying to convey than what your fellow citizens are thinking.


David Wanetick is a Managing Director at IncreMental Advantage, a consulting and research firm based in Princeton, NJ. He teaches courses on Negotiating Transactions, Leadership and Behavioral Economics at The Business Development Academy. His most recent book is entitled, The Power of Incremental Advantage: How Incremental Improvements Produce Dramatically Disproportionate Results. He may be contacted at dwanetick@incrementaladvantage.com.