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THE OPINION MAKERS:
An Insider Exposes the Truth Behind the Polls



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September 25, 2008

David Moore's "The Opinion Makers" Will Make You Think Twice Before You Believe the Latest Polls

Don't Believe the Hype

The Opinion Makers , by David Moore, Beacon Press, Boston, hardcover, 196 pages. ISBN-13: 978-0807042328. Buy it at Amazon.com.

Book Review by Katie Delahaye Paine

The Opinion Makers is one of those books that changes your entire view of the world. Seriously. Once you read it, you'll define your life in BTOM (Before The Opinion Makers) and ATOM (After The Opinion Makers).

  • BTOM, you probably are worried or thrilled to see McCain's numbers go up while Obama's are going down. ATOM, you won't know what to think.
  • BTOM, you probably believe what the newscasters are saying about the general public's perceptions of Sara Palin. ATOM, you'll realize you haven't a clue what people think.
  • BTOM, you probably believe that most people want offshore drilling in the US. ATOM you'll believe it's all campaign hype.

David Moore -- author, pollster and former Gallup insider -- lays out an incredibly compelling case as to why you shouldn't believe any of the polls you read about in the media.

In the interest of transparency, David Moore is a fellow Granite Stater. He's been to my house, he was my hero after he wrote How to Steal an Election, and he works for the Carsey Institute which is doing some of the coolest research into rural America. So I'm a fan, and when I heard him on The Diane Rehm Show the other day, I was intrigued by the premise of his new book. But I wasn't prepared for a life changing experience.

TOM is one of those books that gets under your skin. You'll find yourself thinking about it when you listen to the news or read a paper, and your friends will soon get annoyed when you cite Moore's research and poke holes in all their political arguments.

Moore's major premise is that because most polls don't ascertain whether people have made up their minds before they ask the respondents how they feel about an issue or a candidate, they are essentially making a leap of faith that the people they are talking to will vote two months from now. The problem, he argues, is that the media companies that are paying for the polls, don't think it makes news to talk about the fact that 80% of the population is still undecided.

Most important, he argues, is that most polls do not take into account the average respondent's lack of knowledge about whatever subject it is that they're being asked about. In many of the cases he cites the level of understanding is very low, so the impact of how the poll is worded is incredibly important, and frequently skews the results.

Moore 's most compelling arguments come from the comparison he makes between the results of different polls. He compares results from the leading polls -- Pew Harris, CBS / NY Times, CNN/Gallup, Roper -- and comes up with 20+ point differences, depending on how questions are asked, and what words are actually used in the poll.

In the wake of the complete failure of most polls to accurately predict voter habits in the 2008 election cycle, there have been many questions about the validity of polls. Moore addresses many of these, including:

  • Cell phone usage: By the end of 2009, 40% of the US population will fall into the cell-phone-only category.
  • Falling response rates, down from 80% in George Gallup's day to 20% or less today.
  • The accuracy of on-line polling, which Moore calls "a dubious alternative."

Polling: A Major Threat to Democracy

Moore 's most intriguing discussion is on the impact that these flawed polls are having on our democratic society. When George Gallup, Moore's former employer, first perfected the notion of polling as a way of gauging public opinion, he saw his work as a fundamentally positive contribution to democracy. Today, Moore argues, Gallup's legacy is one of the biggest threats to democracy that our society faces.

Given how easy it is to manipulate poll results, and the conflicting interests and agendas of those sponsoring the research, to draw valid conclusions about how Americans feel about an issue based on current polling methodology is an enormous mistake, says Moore. The problem is that, increasingly, politicians are doing exactly that. A shift in public opinion frequently dictates a political flip-flop or at the very least influences the way a particular politician will vote. Polls also strongly influence the wording and nature of legislation that gets introduced.

The truly scary concept is that those votes and legislation, which ultimately impact every American, are based on enormously flawed and shaky data that most researchers would not accept as valid. Unfortunately, it seems, every media outlet and politician are all too willing to accept it as gospel.

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In this succinct and damning critique of the pitfalls of public opinion reporting, Moore (How to Steal an Election), former senior editor of the Gallup Poll, argues that today's polls report the whims rather than the will of the people due to an intrinsic methodological problem: poll results don't differentiate between those who express deeply held views and those who have hardly, if at all, thought about an issue. Thus, respondents are compelled to provide an ill-considered, top-of-mind response because the method does not offer the option of expressing no opinion. In Moore's view, forced-choice polls not only distort public opinion, they create a legitimacy spin cycle, which damages U.S. democracy by manufacturing a public consensus to serve those in power. Keen and witty throughout, his prose turns bitter as he condemns journalists, insisting they are fully aware of the polling flaws but turn a blind eye because they like sharply divided groups and extreme reactions. However correct his claim and justified his outrage, his proposed antidote—that the media ought to enlighten its audience to its own ignorance—feels more like a pipe dream than a practical prescription. (Sept.)
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved

-Publishers Weekly

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“We all know that the corporate press conducts its own opinion polls and keeps headlining the results as if such stuff were news. What we don't know is just how sloppy-and misleading-most of that work really is. In this important book, veteran pollster David Moore uses many harrowing examples from the recent past to meticulously note the many defects in such polling. A powerful argument that polls do not merely misinform us, but pose a genuine, if subtle, threat to our democracy.”

- Mark Crispin Miller, Professor of Media, Culture and Communication at
New York University, and author of Fooled Again: The Real Case for Electoral Reform


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“The next time your phone rings with questions from a pollster, beware. David Moore rings an alarm bell that democracy is endangered by the way the news media use public opinion polls. In chapter and verse, he exposes how false and misleading polling practices actually create public opinion and this, in turn, influences what government does. The Opinion Makers demonstrates what James Madison said 200 years ago—a misinformed public becomes a threat to democracy.”

- Ben H. Bagdikian, author of The New Media Monopoly, and Dean Emeritus of the University of California at Berkeley’s School of Journalism.

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“You will never regard political polls the same after reading David W. Moore's devastating inside account of their severe limitations and misapplications. This book should be required reading for journalists, political junkies, students, scholars and citizens.”

- Robert W. McChesney, author of The Political Economy of Media, and co-founder of the national media reform organization, Free Press.


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“The Opinion Makers is the most important book about the making of polls and public opinion that I have read. The account of how news stories drive polls should make us stop and ask whether the close relationship between the newsroom and polling operations is perhaps a bit too close. A must read for scholars and citizens.”

- W. Lance Bennett, Director, Center for Communication and Civic Engagement University of Washington, Seattle, and co-author of When The Press Fails: Political Power and The News Media from Iraq to Katrina.

 





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