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Polling: a look inside the machinery of public opinion surveys

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Good polling is, in its own way, as intricately detailed as "successful heart surgery," says Frank Newport, the editor in chief of Gallup and the immediate past president of the American Association for Public Opinion Research: "Failures, wrong decisions, or low quality in any of these phases of the process can negatively affect the objective of using carefully selected samples of respondents to accurately represent the attitudes and self-reported behavior of an entire population of citizens."

So with this mission in mind, if Jablonski calls, should you steal away from your family to take the time to answer his questions? And if you don't, should you care how neighbors, friends, or faraway strangers responded?

Are polls a civic duty?

"Being called to do a survey is a privilege, not a burden," says Jon Krosnick, a Stanford University professor and expert in the psychology of political behavior and survey research methods. "Polls are taken so seriously that being given the opportunity to express your point of view is meaningful. It is a valuable opportunity, and it will make a difference."

George Gallup, a grandfather of the contemporary polling movement, believed as much. A veteran of the advertising world who held a PhD in psychology, Mr. Gallup founded the precursor to the company, the American Institute of Public Opinion, in 1935.

In that era, polls were conducted in-home, face to face by interviewers across the nation. The emergence of telephones in homes and the decrease in cost of calls changed that practice by the 1970s, making data more easily and cheaply obtainable and more timely, wrote Pew Research Center president Andrew Kohut in a 2009 history of public opinion surveying.

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