cover image Strength in Numbers: How Polls Work and Why We Need Them

Strength in Numbers: How Polls Work and Why We Need Them

G. Elliott Morris. Norton, $28.95 (224p) ISBN 978-0-393-86697-1

Economist journalist Morris debuts with a detailed rundown of how public opinion polling has evolved from ancient Greece to the present day and why it is essential for democratic societies. Contending that polls “shape the government’s understanding of what the people want from their leaders,” Morris traces the concept that public opinion, or the “general will,” should guide the processes of lawmaking and governing to Enlightenment philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau and notes that the first published straw polls appeared during the 1824 U.S. presidential election. Elsewhere, Morris recounts how George Gallup’s efforts to better measure the interests of newspaper readers helped make him “the father of modern public opinion surveys” in the 20th century; explains the numerous factors that contribute to inaccurate polls, including sampling errors, refusals by certain types of respondents to participate, and imprecise or biased questions; and describes how polls can be used to manipulate public opinion. Though Morris’s discussions of technical matters, including the “raking” algorithm pollsters use to determine whether their surveys are representative, can be heavy going, he makes a persuasive case for the necessity of polling and the need to better educate the public about how it works. Political junkies and policy analysts will savor this informative deep dive. (July)