But What Do the Polls Show?

Source Organization: Pew Research Center

Author: Andrew Kohut

10/14/2009 - The following commentary is excerpted from The Politics of News: The News of Politics, 2nd Edition, with the permission of CQ Press. 

In 1993 the Times Mirror Center, the forerunner of the Pew Research Center, began a series of comprehensive opinion surveys about foreign policy called "America's Place in the World." Over the years, the surveys have traced the currents in public opinion through the seemingly carefree days of the 1990s when "the United States had no enemies," to the time when public concerns soared following the Sept. 11 attacks and Americans began a contentious debate about how best to deal with the terrorist threat.

The results of these surveys have been closely followed by the foreign policy community and well covered by the news media. Still, of all the briefings, press conferences and events associated with these surveys, one meeting in the mid-1990s stands out in my mind. I was introduced to my audience by Theodore Sorenson, once a principal adviser to and speech-writer for President John F. Kennedy. Sorenson remarked in his opening comments, "Now that we have to consider public opinion in the conduct of foreign policy, it's worth listening to what Kohut has to say about what his polls show."

Coming from a senior policymaker of another era, this introduction drove home to me quite clearly how much the role of public opinion had changed over the years. Polls now provide leaders with capital or impoverish them in their efforts to promote policies. Those who can back up their assertions by pointing to poll results find the going easier than leaders who cannot. In turn, news organizations cover policy initiatives differently when programs appear to have popular support compared with when they do not. As a result, the public has become a more important player in national affairs over the past three decades. It is not possible to find a major national policy initiative for which polling has not played a significant, even critical, role. In 1998, Kathleen Frankovich observed, "Polls have become even more important and necessary to news writing and presentation, to the point where their significance sometimes overwhelms the phenomena they are supposed to be measuring or supplementing."

Continue reading Andrew Kohut's commentary But What Do the Polls Show? on the Pew Research Center's Web site.

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