Every news-consuming American knows there’s always a ballot or election on the horizon. As stats are shot at us from left and right, it is difficult to go a day without hearing the most recent reports on which candidate has taken the lead, who has gained momentum, and who or what is no longer viable. This leads to two rather important, but rarely asked, questions: who cares and what do these numbers really mean? In this roundtable, we hope to provide a basic understanding of polling, its different forms, how they are used by the candidates, campaigns, and the media—and what insight sociologists can provide.
What is polling and what does it measure?
Howard Schuman: A poll is almost always a series of questions intended to provide information about a large population (one too big to talk to one on one). For example, the total American population, which is now over 300 million people, or you can be interested only in American adults, say, 18 and over. A poll does this by drawing a relatively small sample from the population, then using probability theory to generalize the sample results to the entire population.
Surveys or polls can be used for practically any issue you wish to ask about, whether it’s factual, attitudes, beliefs, values, or anything else you can think to ask people. Most people are familiar with polls that measure opinions about political candidates, including who will win an election, but there’s really no limit to the types of topics that a poll or survey can ask about. For example, the federal government uses surveys each month to measure unemployment. So when you hear a figure like “There’s 8.2% unemployment over the past month,” it’s based on a sample. It’s a fairly large sample, but still, it’s a very small part of the total population of the U.S. labor force, so the government uses a survey to determine and report on unemployment every month. And much else that appears in government reports is based on samples of either the total population or some part of the population.
The questions themselves matter. And it turns out that writing questions is a lot more complex than most people realize. Answers can be affected by the form of the question—that is, whether it is open-ended or closed. The words also matter. For example, there’s no real difference between “forbidding” smoking and “not allowing” smoking in, say, a classroom, but many Americans give different answers to the question depending on whether you say “Should smoking be forbidden?” or “Should it not be allowed?” So, wording can make a huge difference. A third factor that affects answers is the context of the question. This includes the order of the questions—what questions came before—and also if there’s an interviewer, the race and sex of the interviewer often affect the answers, particularly if the questions deal with race or gender. (more…)