Benefits and Dangers of Opinion Polls

September 16, 1988

Report Outline
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Judging from the growing number of public opinion polls, Americans have an insatiable curiosity about what other Americans think about almost everything—from arms control to fast food to presidential candidates. But polls have their limitations—limitations that must be understood as polls grow in number and importance.

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As every politician knows, polls are far from infallible. Their bewitching aura of precision is largely illusion. Nevertheless, there is little doubt that well-conducted polls have genuine value. After all, what is the alternative? “However partial, misleading or inconclusive the polls may be as indicators of public opinion,” says Eleanor Singer, a senior research scholar at Columbia University and a former editor of Public Opinion Quarterly, “they are better than anything else we've got.”

In presidential election years, opinion polls take on more significance. Both Vice President George Bush and Massachusetts Gov. Michael S. Dukakis are making extensive use of polls in their quests for the White House (see article, p. 459), as have their predecessors for nearly 30 years. Use of professional pollsters has been de rigueur for serious presidential candidates since 1960, when Democratic nominee John F. Kennedy kept pollster Louis Harris at his side and Republican rival Richard M. Nixon used the services of pollster Claude Robinson. This year, Dukakis has Irwin “Tubby” Harrison and Bush is using Robert Teeter. The practice also has spread to contests for state, congressional and even local offices.

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