Recent survey reveals public opinion on public opinion
by Patricia Draznin

There is no more powerful privilege bestowed upon the citizens of these great United States than the right to vote in a random poll. And no one seizes the privilege as often as the average American who participates in 365 surveys per year, according to a recent survey.

As you well know, an opinion poll assesses public attitude on a particular issue from the responses of a few, also referred to as statistical inference, extrapolation, conjecture, presumption, circumstantial evidence, and eeny-meeny-miny-moe. And determined pollsters snag us wherever they can find us—on the phone, in the sauna, standing in a police lineup—making us answer questions like these:

  • Is the President doing a good job? (Good job of what? 46%)
  • Do you prefer Letterman or Leno? (Never dated either of them 14%);
  • Do you believe in a higher power? (Yes, the Supreme Court 28%);
  • Your favorite fabric? (Leather 97%);
  • Your pick in 2008 election? (Obama 53.8%, Palin 46.2%);
  • Should restaurants be allowed to serve caribou? (Yes, if wearing shirt and shoes 59%).

But I digress.

American history reveals that her proud polling process evolved over decades of trial and error. It all began in the Adams-Jackson election of 1824, when, as you well recall, The Harrisburg Pennsylvanian conducted the first informal “straw vote”—having everything to do with voting and little to do with straw.

In 1916, the Literary Digest launched the first national survey by mailing millions of postcards and counting the returns. The Digest struck gold by correctly predicting Woodrow Wilson’s victory as well as the winners of the next four elections, and also that Jared would lose weight eating Subways. But in 1936 they predicted Landon’s victory over FDR, unaware that its “voter” demographic was now Republican. This gave birth to the golden rule of qualified samples: Don’t poll the NRA to find out what percentage of Americans eat rice cakes. Enter George Gallup, whose American Institute of Public Opinion called FDR’s landslide victory, and Elmo Roper, who did not appear on Sesame Street but DID call three Roosevelt reelections. These were the years before the two-term limit, unlike today when the president has to clone a successor.

Since then, data dollars have spawned scads of polling giants including the Field Corporation, the Pew Research Center, the Harris Poll, and smaller organizations like Lefty’s Research and Muffler Repair. And then there’s PollDaddy.com, where you can launch your very own survey for feedback on, say, where to find the best pizza in Calcutta (Bindi’s Big Cheese 42%), or what you should wear to your boyfriend’s graduation (Leather 97%).

To summarize, Americans have long been fascinated by the national Opinion du Jour, of knowing what every citizen is thinking even before THEY know, according to a recent survey. And 67% of pollsters believe there’s a bright future in public opinion, where no American will be left unpolled. What do YOU think? Vote here and let us know. According to a recent survey, 73% of us want to hear all about it.

Copyright 2008 Patricia Draznin


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