Why does polling matter?

Founding Director, Pew Research Center
By quantitatively assessing public opinions, Kohut's polls give a voice to people who aren't normally heard.
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TRANSCRIPT

 

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Question: Why does polling matter?

 

Andrew Kohut: I think it’s important because it gives a voice to the people. It gives a . . . a quantitative, independent assessment of what public . . . of what the public feels as opposed to what experts or pundits think the public feels. So often it provides a quick corrective on what’s thought to be the conventional wisdom about public opinion. There are any number of examples that I could give you about how wrong the experts are here in Washington, in New York and elsewhere about public opinion that are revealed . . . that are revealed by public opinion polls.

 

Question: Is polling the best way of gauging public opinion?

 

Andrew Kohut: I think it’s the best way of gauging public opinion – doing something that’s independent, that’s quantitative, that doesn’t give just the loud voices’ say in . . . about how things are going; or doesn’t give expert . . . so called experts . . . the notion that they know what public opinion is.  I think those are . . . those . . . that . . . that’s what makes public opinion polling pretty important.  Quantitative . . . Qualitative assessments of public opinion; going out and talking to people and understanding the nuance to what’s behind the numbers.  I think it’s awfully important as well.  And the other thing is  . . .  Another measure of public opinion is behavior – how many people are doing this and how many are doing that.  You can see those reflections of public opinion in official statistics, and market trends and all kinds of things.

 

Question: How does polling fit into the American political system?

 

Andrew Kohut: Oh in lots of ways.  First of all, public opinion polling is used . . . not the kind of polling that I do, but the kind of polling that the political consultants do has been used now for two decades to help candidates get elected.  It helps shape messages.  It helps . . .  Most importantly it helps monitor the great expenditures that political candidates make these days in media.  You can’t go out and spend millions of dollars with no sense of whether or not it’s working until you wake up in the . . . wake up on Election Day to find out.  So with the advent of telephone polling, which began extensively and became the norm in the 1970s, that enabled political people to go into business as political pollsters as opposed to doing what I do, and what Gallup does, which is doing independent public opinion polling for the media, and for . . . in our case for the public itself through the Pew Research Center.  But you have the independent media pollsters.  You have the . . .  You have the partisan pollsters.  They do different things.

 

Question: How should the public evaluate poll results?

 

Andrew Kohut: I don’t know.  It’s very hard . . .  It’s increasingly hard.  A number of media organizations, for example, are taking the least expensive road . . . route, and they will do some of these surveys that I think aren’t as methodologically sound as what the CBS, New York Times poll does, or what Gallup does, or what we do.  One of the most important things to . . . for people to do in evaluating an opinion poll is look at the question that was asked.  Looked at the inferences that are being drawn from the results of the question, and also say to themselves, “Well how would I have answered that question?  And what would that say about my opinion about what to do next in Iraq?”

 

Question: Do we rely too much on polls?

 

Andrew Kohut: Certainly polling is a tool for leadership.  It’s not the . .  It’s not a program for leadership.  And you can abuse a tool.  You can overuse it.  A leader who looks to the latest poll finding and says, “Well that’s what I should do” . . . that’s not a very good leader.  I mean that’s someone who is not taking this poll and saying, “Well what am I gonna have to do to get public acceptance of my policies?”  It’s someone who is interested in . . . in . . . in their own election or re-election, and their own popularity rather than serving . . . genuinely serving the public interest.

 

Question: Are polls self-fulfilling?

 

Andrew Kohut: No, because so often you see polls . . . poll trend lines reverse themselves.  There’s a lot of popularity for a particular figure, and all of a sudden it goes in a different direction.  Look how popular President Bush was for a number of years.  If polls were fulfilling . . . self-fulfilling prophecies, his approval ratings would have never come down.

 

Question: Do election-day polls have a negative impact on voters?

 

Andrew Kohut: I think that the networks have done a pretty good job of policing – except to insiders – what those early takes on the exit polls have shown.  You know every . . . every . . . every person . . . every member of the media political community in Washington by four o’clock has known what the early exit polls have been showing in the presidential elections.  And that has a different set of problems.  But in terms of the voters themselves, the networks and the media have generally cleaned up their act, and they’re not reporting at six o’clock or seven o’clock what the polls are suggesting.  And I don’t think there’s much risk that voting is being discouraged by these polls.

 

Question: Do your views affect how you conduct a poll?

 

Andrew Kohut: You know come Election Day . . .  The day before the election we put out a poll, and we say, “This is what we think is going to happen.”  Or, “This is where the other electorate is as of today.”  And we also talk about what might happen between today and tomorrow.  And the world gets to . . . Since we are on the public record, the world gets to see whether we’re right or wrong.  Now having that challenge, and having that . . . being put up to that kind of scrutiny, you really work very hard to get it right. I mean I   . . . One of the great things about my career is that I worked for the pioneer.  I worked with George Gallup.  And I can also remember Gallup being completely flummoxed by people who accused him of being, you know, a Republican or a Democrat.  You know, and what Gallup wanted was to get . . . get . . . get the damn poll right.  And I think that’s what most of us who work in the public . . .  Well not most of us . . . all of us who work in the public domain . . .  I mean the worst thing in the world is you’ve had a poll that’s shown consistently this, that, or the other thing, and it . . . reality turns out to be something else.

 

Question: Have you ever been wrong on Election Day?

 

Andrew Kohut: Well we have a very good record, and the polls that I’ve done have been pretty good.  I’ve had a couple of bullseyes on presidential elections where the numbers are absolutely right.  And every presidential election that I’ve directed, I’ve been within the margin of error so to speak; and sometimes even well within the margin of error, right on the nose.  But the one that I’ll always remember is I got the New Hampshire primary wrong in . . . in 1988.  And there’s nothing worse than being publicly wrong.  (Laughter)  It is a . . . It is a . . .  It is a humbling experience because everyone says, “Hey, I thought you said that so-and-so was gonna win the New Hampshire primary?”  And so that, you know, I . . . I sincerely hope that somewhere along the line it doesn’t say in my obituary that this, this and this (laughter), but he got the New Hampshire primary wrong in 1988.  I’m just teasing there.  I’m sure it won’t.  I’m hoping it won’t, at least.

 

Question: If you get it wrong, how do you regain the public’s trust?

 

Andrew Kohut: Well it’s easy for us ‘cause we go out and keep polling, and we then show that . . . that we . .  . we’ve learned a lesson.  I mean Gallup, who again I started with back in the late ‘60s, you know he was wrong in ’48.  It shaped views about public opinion polling.  It certainly shaped his notion, shaped his business.  And a lot . . .  You know and that was an extraordinary event in his life, and in his career, and in the course of his polling.  God, there were congressional hearings about how could the polls get . . . how could all the polls get it wrong?  And what he did is he turned his methodology over to a great statistician at Gallup, and they revamped what they were doing.  I mean you learn from these experiences.  But you know to get back to this point, I think having to get it right not only with regard to the presidential election, but to have your polls conform to . . . to what the census is showing about the distribution of the population; or what official statistics are showing about, you know, certain patterns of behavior or ownership of things.  You have to work hard to make the measures, and the questions, and the sampling be accurate.

 

Recorded on: 9/14/07