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Public opinion polls: You can’t save the 20%

February 12, 2012

Even unbiased polls that are properly designed sometimes provide glimpses into the nature of the respondent pool that is disappointing if not outright disturbing. In any given poll it seems to me that about 20% of the respondents are either unaware of the facts of an issue or provide responses that are at odds with what is generally accepted as normal cognitive function.

It’s an unfortunate reality that not knowing the facts of an issue doesn’t prevent people from having an opinion. In fact, I’ve noted an inverse relationship between the two, viz., the fewer the facts the stronger the opinion. I have nothing to back up the concept of an inverse relationship but I feel very strongly that I’m right. (See what I mean?)

Here are a few examples from credible polling organizations that support the concept that a very real percentage of respondents may not know what they’re talking about.

18% believe the sun orbits the earth, 3% had no opinion
http://www.gallup.com/poll/3742/new-poll-gauges-americans-general-knowledge-levels.aspx

59% don’t know it takes 61 votes to override a filibuster in the US Senate.
http://pewresearch.org/pubs/1478/political-iq-quiz-knowledge-filibuster-debt-colbert-steele

18% believe Obama is a Muslim
http://pewforum.org/Politics-and-Elections/Growing-Number-of-Americans-Say-Obama-is-a-Muslim.aspx

21% believe in witches
http://www.gallup.com/poll/16915/three-four-americans-believe-paranormal.aspx

41% believe Sadam Hussein was directly involved with 911
http://www.newsweek.com/2007/09/04/dunce-cap-nation.html

41% aren’t sure if Judaism is an older religion that Christianity
http://www.newsweek.com/2007/09/04/dunce-cap-nation.html

58% did not know that there are three branches of government
http://www.foxnews.com/story/0,2933,208577,00.html

22% believe the health care reform act has already been repealed, 26% don’t know.
http://www.kff.org/kaiserpolls/upload/8156-F.pdf

63% believe that “God created human beings pretty much in their present form at one time within the last 10,000 years.”
http://www.usatoday.com/news/politics/2007-06-07-evolution-poll-results_n.htm

29% didn’t know Joe Biden was the Vice president.
http://www.thedailybeast.com/newsweek/2011/03/20/how-dumb-are-we.html

20% didn’t know America gained its independence from Great Britain
http://maristpoll.marist.edu/wp-content/misc/usapolls/US100617/July%204th_summer%20vacation/Country_From_Which_US_Declared_Independence.htm

50% believe antibiotics kill viruses; 53% thought lasers work by focusing sound waves; 49% didn’t know it takes a year for the earth to orbit the sun.
http://www.nsf.gov/statistics/seind12/pdf/c07.pdf

No percentage for this one but I found it interesting. On a religious knowledge test atheists had the highest scores while Christians the lowest.
http://www.pewforum.org/U-S-Religious-Knowledge-Survey-Who-Knows-What-About-Religion.aspx

Some on the list have to make one smile but the real danger of public opinion polls is that have become the major policy drivers of our democracy. Rather than showing leadership and deliberating policies on their merits, politicians react to polls. Why? To adapt Willie Sutton’s purported words[1], “Because that’s where the votes are.” It’s no wonder there’s no order in the legislative process but it hasn’t always been this way.

Over 25 years ago Michael Margolis wrote the following in The ANNALS of the American Academy of Political and Social Science and today, I would argue that his prediction has come true.

“The advent of scientific public opinion polling gave democratic governance a new dimension. For the first time representatives could discern people’s opinions on virtually any public issue. Despite this ability, three important questions remain. Are people adequately informed to consider the complex problems of modern government? Will they give their true opinions to a pollster? And even if these two conditions are satisfied, do representatives have to be bound by popular opinion? This article argues that modern public opinion analysts who use polling data tend to ignore these questions and instead focus on patterns of attitudes among various groups in the population. Before scientific polling became common, those who studied public opinion directed their efforts to the connection between behavioral manifestations of public opinion and the development of public policy. They worried more about the role of public opinion in the formulation of public policy. It turns out that much of the public opinion literature preceding scientific polling remains relevant, and we ignore it at our peril.”[2]

There will always be the 20% of poll respondents that are disconnected from reality. They can’t be saved and will always be on the fringe. Even if they don’t vote they have undue influence because some digital dialer has connected with them on their landline and asked their opinion and the politicians listen. We should be better at governing ourselves than this.


[1] Willie Sutton, the notorious bank robber, when asked why he robbed banks purportedly responded “Because that’s where the money is.” However, in his autobiography Sutton denied every saying the phrase and attributed it to a creative journalist.

[2] The ANNALS of the American Academy of Political and Social Science March 1984 vol. 472 no. 1 61-71, doi: 10.1177/0002716284472001006

One Response to “Public opinion polls: You can’t save the 20%”


  1. […] Confronting Mediocrity by Steve Barefoot Skip to content Home ← Public opinion polls: You can’t save the 20% […]


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