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The Uses and Abuses of Public Opinion Polls

The Case of Louis Harris and Associates

The most important principle underlying democracy is that the majority should rule. But until relatively recently, Americans have been poorly equipped to communicate their wishes to elected representatives. The principal means for doing so has always been elections. But elections occur relatively infrequently, and they provide no means for citizens to indicate precisely which of a winning candidate's stands they like and which they dislike. Especially passionate individuals have always expressed their views directly to their representatives, but these people convey the wishes of only a small segment of constituents.

The development of widespread national public opinion polling in the 1940's was therefore a major step forward for the citizens of the United States. Opinion surveys have made it possible for the electorate to express detailed demands on policy matters to elected representatives in Washington. And when national crises occur, we can swiftly send pointed messages to politicians about what we want done. As a result, public opinion polls are tremendously valuable assets in the conduct of contemporary American democracy.

But as valuable as public opinion polls are, they are also easily misinterpreted. Public sentiment on most controversial issues is highly textured and conflicted. It is therefore difficult to describe the American electorate's views...

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