Does Polling Make the Public Stupid?

Politics and Markets

“The first lesson you learn as a pollster is that people are stupid,” said Tom Jensen of Public Policy Polling.  That certainly seems warranted by the wild gyrations and arbitrary opinions expressed during the current Republican primary campaigns.

If the strength of democracy comes from its grounding in public opinion, that sometimes seems to be its basic flaw as well.  Jensen added:  “I also think voters are showing a tendency to turn issues that should be factual or non-factual into opinions.” Think of the “birthers” and those who continue to say that Obama is a Muslim.

Another disturbing sign is how quickly public attitudes towards candidates change in response to events that have nothing to do with them.  A good example being widely cited now is how skyrocketing gasoline prices at the pump have caused the President’s approval ratings to plummet.  Most people who understand gasoline markets know there is nothing Obama could have done about it. (See, “How Much Do Voters Know?“)

Could it be that pollsters bring out the stupidity in people?  Let’s think about that.

By and large, when people express their opinions they know that the results will be tabulated and publicized.  In effect, the question becomes their moment of fame, an opportunity to matter.  That is encouragement to shout out about the things that disturb them most.

Similarly, when asked about gas prices or any other current problem, they want someone to blame.  Angry and often anxious, they see the question as a chance to get back at the source of their discomfort.  The pollster does not usually ask the people they are polling to “take a minute,” or “think about it.”  On the contrary, they want responses, and that is often just what they get.

Quinnipiac pollster Peter Brown, notes:  “Just because someone’s not familiar with something doesn’t mean they won’t give you their opinion.”  But he adds, “And just because they don’t know a lot about it – their vote still counts as much as someone who does know a lot about it.”

“In the business of politics, voters are always right. Just like on Wall Street, the market is always right,” he said. “You don’t fight the market.”

That’s a good point, but when people are confronted with investment decisions, they do often slow down and take the time to think about the reasons why they are making choices.  They worry about the consequences.  It is not exactly the same as showing off, and it’s usually not impulsive.

But it can be just as detached from reality, and just as influenced by the crowd.  What matters is giving your self the chance to wonder if you really believe in what you are saying or doing.