Energy In Numbers: How Polls Work and Why We Want Them. By G. Elliott Morris. W.W. Norton; 224 pages; $28.95 and £21.99
Within the Twenties, George Gallup sought to increase the circulation of his scholar newspaper. To achieve readers’ consideration, he revealed a misogynistic article entitled “The Unattractive Ladies”; it received his scholar rag so many new followers that the Day by day Iowan rapidly turned a worthwhile newspaper. Readers claimed to be fascinated with editorials and information, not comics or gossip columns, however Gallup was proper to suspect in any other case.
He started extra cautious research, actually wanting over readers’ shoulders to look at which items really seized their consideration. It was the start of his journey from journalist to father of contemporary opinion polls. G. Elliott Morris, a knowledge journalist at The Economist, has written each a historical past and a defence of opinion polling; his story about George Gallup hints at lots of the subjects this full of life guide explores.
There’s a basic drawback with polls: when pollsters ask questions, the solutions they obtain could also be lower than candid. There may be additionally the simply neglected proven fact that opinion polling has at all times been about making a living, with discovering the reality as an secondary motive. And there may be the disheartening reality that, whereas opinion pollsters attempt to discern what folks assume and really feel, what folks assume and really feel might be ignoble. Gallup debased his scholar newspaper to please his readers, and politicians might debase policymaking to please the voters.
Gallup himself was unabashed. In 1940 he co-wrote “The Pulse of Democracy”, a guide which argued that profitable governments could be “attentive to the typical opinion of mankind”, an opinion which “for the primary time in democratic historical past” may now be constantly and objectively measured. Mr Morris concurs. “Polls are a distillation of the final will first,” he writes approvingly, “and every thing else second.”
Whereas most individuals consider polls as a prediction of election outcomes, Mr Morris reveals how they turned a continuing enter to political decision-making. Gallup’s near-forgotten up to date, Emil Hurja, was well-known within the Nineteen Thirties because the “Wizard of Washington”. His information on public opinion formed the selections of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s administration. The Simulmatics Company, run by social scientists from the Massachusetts Institute of Know-how and Yale, and armed with the most recent computer systems, supplied exact (if not at all times correct) predictions as to how every of John F. Kennedy’s positions would have an effect on his recognition with completely different voter segments. Richard Nixon was a prolific procurer of polls.
Pundits then and now apprehensive that if politicians obsessed over opinion surveys, policymaking would turn into an act of followership quite than management. Mr Morris suggests as an alternative that it’s higher to have a political class that attends to public opinion than one which ignores it, and declares that “public opinion polling has been one of the crucial democratising forces in American political historical past.” He even speculates that the Vietnam struggle may need ended far earlier if solely Lyndon Johnson had been as fascinated with polling as Nixon was.
Mr Morris doesn’t draw back from the horror tales. He eviscerates some influential however deceptive surveys of mortality in Iraq and grumbles about partisan push pollsters, who ask loaded questions reminiscent of: “Would you continue to vote for [John] McCain if you happen to knew he had intercourse with prostitutes and gave his spouse venereal illness?”
Given the subtitle of the guide, it’s shocking that Mr Morris waits till the second half to correctly focus on sampling, probably the most basic concept in polling. When he describes the fallout of Donald Trump’s win in 2016 for pundits and pollsters, Mr Morris mixes a vivid journalistic account of contemporary polling failures with a discovered however difficult vary of acronyms and technical particulars.
Polling is flawed, and a few of these flaws appear unfixable. However Mr Morris’s repeated chorus is that the critics of opinion surveys overstate their case. If you happen to assume polls can mislead, simply attempt understanding the citizens with out them. Alas for pollsters, they may at all times be anticipated to forecast elections. From an early fiasco in 1936, by way of Gallup’s “Dewey Defeats Truman” humiliation in 1948, to Mr Trump’s allegedly unattainable triumph in 2016, Mr Morris sorrowfully reminds us that pollsters are judged by outcomes. These outcomes might range.
Written for and first revealed in The Economist on 26 August 2022.