Scott Keeter in the Wilson Quarterly:
New Hampshire gave new life to many nagging doubts about polling and criticisms of its role in American politics. Are polls really accurate? Can surveys of small groups of people give a true reading of what a much larger group thinks? What about bias? Don’t pollsters stack the deck?
At a deeper level, the unease about polling grows out of fears about its impact on democracy. On the strength of exit polls in the 1980 presidential election, for example, the TV networks projected a Ronald Reagan victory—and Jimmy Carter conceded—even though people in the West still had time to vote. Critics charged that this premature call may have literally stopped some westerners from taking the trouble to cast their ballots. There is also a more generalized suspicion that polls (and journalists) induce political passivity by telling Americans what they think. As the New Hampshire story unfolded on January 8, former television news anchor Tom Brokaw seemed to have this idea on his mind when he said, with a bit of exasperation, that professional political observers should simply “wait for the voters” instead of “making judgments before the polls have closed and trying to stampede, in effect, the process.”
At the same time, some worry that polls put too much power in the hands of an uninformed public, and that they reduce political leaders to slavish followers of public opinion. In the White House, efforts to systematically track public opinion date back to the dawn of modern polling, during the administration of Franklin D. Roosevelt, and nobody seems to get very far in American politics today without a poll-savvy Dick Morris or Karl Rove whispering in his or her ear.
But while there may be reason to worry about the public’s political competence, a far more serious threat to democracy arises from the large disparities in income, education, and other resources needed to participate effectively in politics. Compared with most other Western democracies, the United States has a more pronounced class skew in voter turnout and other forms of political participation, with the affluent much more politically active than those who are less well off. This uneven distribution of political engagement is what makes public-opinion polls especially valuable. Far from undermining democracy, they enhance it: They make it more democratic.