15 August 2002
Source: http://usinfo.state.gov/cgi-bin/washfile/display.pl?p=/products/washfile/latest&f=02081402.nlt&t=/products/washfile/newsitem.shtml

US Department of State
International Information Programs

Washington File

14 August 2002

Public Opinion Polling Expands Participation in Government

(Modern techniques allow for accurate prediction, greater involvement)
By Benjamin Gross
Washington File Staff Writer

Washington--Their results appear everyday in newspapers and television
programs around the world, influencing the decisions of political
leaders and ordinary citizens alike. Still, despite their widespread
acceptance, the mechanisms behind public opinion polls remain a
mystery to the general public. They wonder how a survey of only 1,000
people can accurately reflect the opinions of an entire nation.

John Zogby, an internationally respected pollster, suggests that
people should be aware of how polling works, because it is first and
foremost a participatory process.

"It offers people a sense of connectedness whether they are isolated
by modern life: the cubicle, the long commute, the gated community; or
isolated by traditional life: the farm, the desert, or whatever.
People with views are connected to each others via the polls."

All public opinion polling aims to record opinion in a sample that
accurately represents a wider population. Pollsters seek a truly
random sample -- one in which every member of a population has an
equal chance of being selected. Assuming a large enough group is
selected, the views of those in such a sample will truly reflect those
of the broader population.

The challenge however, lies in identifying the target population and
designing a means of sampling that population randomly to avoid bias.
For target population, a typical Zogby political poll limits the scope
of its survey to likely voters, rather than the entire adult

"There's enough of a different demographic between the adult
population and the likely voting population so as to be significant,"
Zogby explained. "[We screen out] those who have not voted and don't
intend to vote in a similar election, those who aren't registered to
vote, and those who refuse to give us a party identification."

In the past, polling was conducted door to door. But when telephones
became common in U.S. households, random telephone dialing became an
effective sampling method. For his surveys, Zogby carries the
selection process one step further, stratifying the samples to ensure
regional, as well as demographic, diversity.

"That means that when the telephone callers start calling, I have a
much better chance of ensuring that my survey is both regionally and
state-by-state represented," he noted. "And if I do that, I've got a
very good chance of ensuring that my sample is also representative

Once the survey mechanism has been designed, the prospective pollster
must decide how large to make the sample. In general, increasing the
sample size decreases the survey's margin of error. The margin of
error is an indication of the accuracy of a poll's results. If a poll
were conducted 100 times, then 95 of those polls would yield the same
result, plus or minus the margin of error. A sample of 400 people, for
example, might result in a margin of error of +/- 5 percent. As sample
sizes increase, however, the corresponding decrease in the margin of
error would become smaller. Pollsters must strike a balance between
accuracy of results and time and cost of extra interviews. For his
polls, Zogby typically aims for 1,000 respondents in the sample.

"It's a bottom line. It's a good margin of sampling error, [plus or
minus] 3.2 percent, and it's also just large enough to give me some
statistically significant subgroups: approximately 500 men and women
each, among 4 different age groups," he said.

Once they devise a means of selecting a random sample and finalize its
size, pollsters must consider what questions to ask and the proper
order in which to present them. Even the most well designed selection
mechanism can be undermined if the poll questions are misleading or
biased. Clients work closely with the pollster through several drafts
before deciding a final order. Still, Zogby says, a pollster must make
great efforts to maintain a high level of objectivity in the work.

"We insist on the final wording of the questions," he said. "It has a
lot to do with standards. We don't feel that we're serving the client
if we're loading the questions, because they're getting inaccurate
information. The survey has to be designed in accordance with our
ethics, with the ethics of the business, and also with the sense that
the more ethical you are, the better your survey will work."

The exact types of questions used vary depending on the poll, but tend
to become increasingly specific over time to keep people from
perceiving for whom the survey is being conducted and thereby skewing
the results. A typical Zogby political poll might begin by asking a
person about his initial impression of the candidates and whom he
planned to vote for before moving on to specific issue-oriented
questions. It might then ask for responses to open-ended questions,
asking how people would react to new information about each candidate.
Finally, it concludes by asking the person whom he plans to vote for,
given all the new information presented in the survey.

"Since the average voter out there doesn't pay attention to more than
10 to 15 minutes worth of political news in the course of a campaign,
if their mind is changed in a 10 minute interval then I know what kind
of image proves more effective," Zogby said.

Polling results are simultaneously tabulated during the interviews
using computers, and are often published within hours of completion.

Public opinion polling allows candidates to better understand the
electorate and determine what issues and trends will prove relevant
during the course of a campaign. The media use survey results to
determine public reaction to government policies and predict the
outcome of elections. Zogby is quick to point out that these snapshots
of public opinion do not determine the outcome of elections and should
not be used to dictate policy.

"Polling doesn't dictate policy, but it always has to be an element in
policy. Whether it's a democracy or an autocracy, no ruler can afford
to be contemptuous of public opinion. It has to be part of the mix,"
he said.

Given its long and successful history in the United States, it is not
surprising that polling is beginning to be used more frequently in
other parts of the world. Zogby's company has been hired for elections
in countries like Iran and Israel.

Although logistics can prove challenging in regions like the Middle
East, Zogby feels that given time and greater awareness of how the
process works, public opinion polling can help spread democratic
values throughout the world.

"Polling in itself isn't just information collection, it's
participatory in itself. It's vox populi [the voice of the people].
And so the more Middle Easterners become accustomed to sharing their
voice in a more public and legitimate participatory setting, the
greater will be both the expectations for democratization and also the
skills development for democratization," he said.

(The Washington File is a product of the Office of International
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