This weekend on C-SPAN’s Book TV I saw David Moore, who used to be a senior editor at Gallup give a talk about his book The Opinion Makers which was very interesting. Here’s an excerpt from the Wall St. Journal.
His main points are that polls are taken to create news stories and that the way polls are conducted and reported create public opinion, very often in favor of the administration line.
Example: the famous “two thirds of the public were in favor of going to war in Iraq”. True, when the question is phrased “are you for or against?” but Moore claims the first question should be "what do you think of the possibility of going to war in Iraq?"
Also, Gallup asked a followup question, “would you be upset if we didn’t go/did go"
More than half the “pro-war” respondents said they would not be upset if we didn’t go so their support was pretty soft but almost all the anti-war” would be upset, so their opposition was set. The real public opinion was 1/3 undecided pro-war, 1/3 undecided or soft pro-war, 1/3 solidly against.
Even more interesting, to me at least, on any given issue the public is ignorant, undecided, or doesn’t care. In a poll asking if Guantanamo Bay should be kept open he says the initial result was that 60% never heard of it so they had to help respondents and taint their sample by asking, “As you may know, the US keeps a prison for suspected terrorist in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. Should it be shut down?” Who is going to say yes? Only civil liberties types who have studied and care about the issue.
Of course, news organisations can’t run stories (or don’t want to) about the public being massively ignorant about “important” issues – i.e. what the media says is important. So they keep paying pollsters to tell them “what the public thinks” which they will then tell the public.