Why Policymakers Should Ignore Public Opinion Polls

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Policymakers often assume that public opinionis a reliable guide to making public policy,but they should not. Public opinion polling measuresthe wishes and preferences of respondents,neither of which reflect the costs or risks associatedwith a policy. Public opinion expressed inpolls cannot inform policy choice, whichrequires attention to tradeoffs among values, tosecond-best possibilities, and to unexpectedrisks.

Polls are unlikely to be improved enough tohelp with policy choices. Improvements wouldmake the product (poll results) too expensive ortoo difficult to obtain from weary respondents.We should not expect to see the day when pollingcan replace reasoned policy choices by electedrepresentatives of the people.

Despite all the fancy numerology surroundingmodern polling, the extracted advice shouldnot guide public policy. Although public desiresfor "more government intervention to help (fillin worthy cause)" are real in that people sincerelycrave the promised improvement, those criesfor government action fail to meet even the mostminimal standards of legitimate counsel. Thispaper shows how little polls tell us about publicpolicy and why we should ignore the profferedguidance to policymakers.

Robert Weissberg

Robert Weissberg is a professor of political science at the University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana.