Knowing the Public Mind

Knowing the Public Mind

Karlyn Bowman

In their 1940 book The Pulse of Democracy, George Gallup and Saul Rae defended a new instrument, the public...

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In their 1940 book The Pulse of Democracy, George Gallup and Saul Rae defended a new instrument, the public opinion poll, but they cautioned as well that polling, an industry then just out of its "swaddling clothes," would need to be evaluated afresh in the future. The infant industry, long since matured, is full of life today. Polls are a commonplace of American life, conducted almost nonstop on almost every conceivable subject. But some of the same questions Gallup and Rae asked about polling six decades ago are still being asked: Is public opinion unreliable as a guide in politics? Are samples truly representative? What are polling's implications for the processes of democracy? And along with the old questions, there are significant new ones, too: Is the proliferation of polls, for example, seriously devaluing the polling enterprise?

The amount of polling on a subject much in the news of late may suggest an affirmative answer to that last question. In late July, the Gallup Organization asked Americans for their views on embryonic stem-cell research, a matter that has vexed scholars, biologists, and theologians. From August 3 to August 5, Gallup polled Americans again. On August 9, immediately after President George W. Bush announced his decision to provide limited federal funding for the research, the survey organization was in the field once more with an instant poll to gauge reaction. From August 10 to August 12, Gallup interviewers polled yet again. Gallup wasn't the only polling organization to explore Americans' views on this complex issue. Ten other pollsters, working with news organizations or academic institutions, conducted polls, too. Hoping to influence the debate and the president's decision, advocacy groups commissioned polls of their own. The Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation International, a supporter of stem-cell research, reported that a solid majority of Americans were in favor of federal funding, and touted the findings in newspaper advertisements shortly before the president spoke. The National Council of Catholic Bishops, an organization opposed to stem-cell research, released survey findings that showed how the wording of questions on stem-cell research can affect a poll's results.  

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