A couple of weeks ago I got a call from Gallup, asking me if I wanted to participate in a poll. I am not entirely convinced that poll results should be given the importance that they sometimes are, but I was curious to see what kinds of questions they ask, so I consented.
The pollster asked me a wide range of questions, from my political views to my income to my optimism or pessimism about the future to my job to my family to the role religion plays in my life. More than once, I had to think for a moment before answering a question because I don’t normally think about some of those things in the way that the question assumed I would. For example, she asked whether I approved or disapproved of the job Barack Obama was doing as president. I didn’t know what to say at first. I wanted to say that we have such outlandish expectations from the office of president that whoever occupies that office is bound to be a disappointment, no matter what our politics are. I knew that my response, whatever it was, would be use to establish approval ratings. In some ways, it would be nice to have a president who has such courage of conviction that he or she doesn’t care about approval ratings, because I don’t think approval ratings matter all that much in the long run. What I said was… well, it doesn’t matter, because I’ve already told you what I think.
She also asked me which Republican I would be most likely to vote for in the 2012 presidential race. She rattled off a list of about a dozen names. I recognized most of their names, but I knew anything about only half of them. So I named a name, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that I would vote for that person. It just means that I have heard of that person and that I have a generally positive impression of them. I could learn something about any one of those possible candidates tomorrow that would make me decide I would not vote for them.
At the end of the poll, I was not satisfied. I knew that my answers to the questions would become part of statistics. Those statistics may influence the decisions of people I’ve never met and may never meet. When people see poll results, they won’t know that I didn’t like the premise of some of the questions. They will assume that the results of the poll accurately reflect what I (and thousands of others) think, when in reality that may or may not be the case.
I used to take poll results with a grain of salt. Now that I have actually been asked the questions in a Gallup poll, that grain just got a whole lot bigger.