WASHINGTON, May 6 (UPI) -- Public opinion polling is an integral part of the political process, but pollwatchers disagree whether it is a good idea to decide policy issues based on instant snapshots of the public mood.
Matthew Robinson says polling undermines constitutional government by placing the continually changing will of the people at the forefront of political debates.
"It should give someone pause that these 40 or 50 questions have become power in and of themselves," said Robinson, author of the book "Mobocracy: How the Media's Obsession with Polling Twists the News, Alters Elections, and Undermines Democracy."
But pollster John Zogby said polling serves an important function by assisting what he called the "symbiotic relationships between the voters and the pundits." He also said polling provides an important test of conventional wisdom and policy.
"We cannot allow the pundits to tell us what public opinion is," said Zogby. "What is important is that we need a test. We need the tool for some kind of scientific test for what the opinion is. We shouldn't rely solely on pundits to express the vox populi."
Robinson and Zogby debated the issue at an April 30 policy forum on the negative effects of polling on democracy. The forum was sponsored by the libertarian Cato Institute.
Polling came into prominence in the 1950s as means to gauge public opinion but has risen to dominate political discourse and media coverage in a way in that could not have been imagined at the time.
Critics of polling contend that instead of using poll results to engage in a useful discourse about the right course for public policy, politicians and lawmakers look to pollsters to tell them what the public wants at a given time, and adjust their policy decisions accordingly to keep their own poll numbers high.
Critics also contend that many of the techniques used by pollsters are flawed at best, and often do not even effectively reflect public opinion.
Robinson said the over-reliance on polls to gauge public opinion flies in the face of the intended design of American democracy. He argued that the democratic system was designed to take advantage of the "expansive and deliberate use of language" as a means to convince others of the best courses of action.
Polling, he said, has come to function against the U.S. system of representative democracy that is specifically designed to protect against to the ephemeral ebbs and flows of public opinion.
Stephen Hess, senior fellow in government studies at the Brookings Institution, agreed with Robinson that politicians can misuse polling.
"Clearly the way that public officials use polls can be very troubling," he told UPI. "They increasingly use polls as a substitute for leadership. They (politicians) should be aware of what the people want, but the polls are too much an instant mirror of public opinion."
But Hess said the belief shared by Robinson and others, that polls threaten democracy, goes too far. As long as polls are conducted properly and politicians understand what they reflect, they are not that problematic, he said.
"I think we can get a little far afield from reality if we go back to the pure pre-poll era (as a model) of how politicians should function," he said. "I think that American politicians are pretty keenly tuned into their electorate and by and large that is a pretty good thing."
Robinson, however, argued that polls limit the policy debate because they have assumed increasing political importance.
He said there are several major problems regarding media-sponsored polling of political races and media polling on policy issues. One of these is the likelihood that poll results, as reported by the press, give a false impression that Americans are knowledgeable about the poll topic.
Media polls, he said, drive the horse race-like coverage that has come to dominate press accounts of elections. Robinson also said media polls on political races drive the way that candidates are covered, with those who lead in polls being portrayed in a more positive light than those who lag behind in such surveys.
"When you have polling used as it is by the media it tends to drive and dictate coverage," he said. "The kind of dynamic (live, verbal) exchange, the reason to be excited by politics, is undermined."
Robinson called for greater control by the polling industry over not only the use of polls but also the techniques used by pollsters. He advocated the end of up-to-the-minute response polling, polls that are conducted over too long a period of time, as well as overnight polls that professionals generally agree are grossly inaccurate.
He also said the industry should work to make poll questions less biased towards a specific outcome.
Zogby agreed with Robinson that there are problems with some techniques used by some pollsters and that the industry needs to do a better job of policing itself.
"I think there is a lot of shallow polling, particularly in the broadcast industry," Zogby said, but he said this partly is due to the tight time constraints inherent in the medium. Zogby also said that there are problems with overnight polling because the samples often are very small.
Zogby also said the way poll questions are worded is a major factor in poll outcomes.
"You can change someone's vote on a poll in a matter of seconds with how a question is worded," he said.
Rudy Teixeira, a senior fellow with the Century Foundation, agreed with Zogby that although there is a down side to polling, there are good uses for data collected by polls.
"I think polling is frequently abused, though clearly it has important uses as well," Teixeira told UPI. "It is better than sticking your finger in the wind, and there is something to be said about getting a reasonably scientific assessment of what the public thinks."
Teixeira said even polling that distorts or misuses basic principles of the technique does not hurt democracy.
"I do think that while this stuff (polling) is abused it also provides important information about what the public thinks," he said. "On balance it presents no real damage to the republic or the quality of democracy. I think all of that is a bit overwrought, frankly."
Regarding Robinson's argument that polls reflect the view of the uniformed, Zogby said it is important to note that in a democracy, the ill-informed voter counts just as much as that of the most erudite participant.
Zogby said although public opinion should never drive policy outright, it should be an integral component in policy decisions. He compared the importance of polling to street demonstrations as an effective means of promoting public views on a subject.
"Polling is our sophisticated way on 99 percent of this planet to be able to tweak out what the street is saying," he said. "If (public opinion) is highly intense, then leaders have to take heed."