Pollsters are professionals dedicated to working with polls, which are sample surveys designed to uncover information about a defined population through questioning a representative sample. Scientific polling developed in the wake of the predictive failure of prescientific methods that used nonrepresentative samples. The most famous early pollsters began work in the 1930s and took part in government efforts to mobilize citizens in the United States during the Great Depression, the New Deal, and World War II. Soon after the war they generally emerged as heads of their own polling organizations, notably George Gallup (1901-1984), Elmo Roper, and Archibald Crossley. These names became synonymous with polling, and they not only sold clients on polling’s value but also argued for and succeeded in giving polling results a prominent place in democratic politics. Gallup especially popularized polling’s roll in governance, and he wrote several books on the subject, including The Pulse of Democracy: The Public-Opinion and How It Works. He also was a groundbreaker in the practice of regularly releasing poll results that revealed feelings about contemporary political issues. At the same time many pollsters entered academics, particularly Angus Campbell, Donald Stokes, Phillip Converse, and Warren Miller, who founded the Center for Political Studies. That group created American voting studies and the National Election Studies, a poll that offers data on voting, public opinion, and political participation and that continues in the early twenty-first century. A similar effort started later at the National Opinion Research Center, whose General Social Survey also remains in use in the early twenty-first century.
Modern pollsters play an important but somewhat underexamined social, political, and economic role in the development of information about large groups in society, especially polls directed at entire nations or states. While the number of practicing pollsters is not large, they collectively do many polls each year, often several simultaneously. Each poll can be an independent project requiring customization of two steps, creating a sample and conducting interviews. To create the sample, a population must be identified, and then chance is used to select a statistically representative subset. The interview requires developing a questionnaire with an overall theme as well as formulating specific questions. Pollsters also repeat certain questions in order to publicize specific public attitudes that have become associated with their organizations. The Gallup and Roper organizations are known, for instance, to frequently poll on citizens’ approval of the U.S. president.
Pollsters tend to be budget sensitive, as they must maintain a staff that includes statisticians, interviewers, analysts, and writers as well as pay other administrative costs; thus their tasks involve satisfying clients’ needs. Although they overlap, pollsters can be categorized by clientele. In broad strokes, clients are media organizations, businesses, or other private entities or academic enterprises. Media pollsters tend to work directly or indirectly with reporters and editors, generally part of the news department, to produce newsworthy tidbits about public attitudes for a wider audience. These pollsters tend to have journalistic goals and tailor efforts to supporting their organization’s mission and specific projects. Increasingly media pollsters aid in the production of lifestyle pieces, like polls concerning parents’ attitudes toward college.
Private pollsters work for specific clients ranging from large businesses and nonprofit organizations to political groups, including individual candidates. They use polls to uncover information clients consider valuable. Such information may help design public communication, for example, marketing a new product; assess performance by surveying customers or employees; and develop new ideas by surveying particular demographic categories. Pollsters have taken on increasing responsibility in political campaigns as well, performing similar functions but in the intense campaign environment. In assisting candidates with elections, pollsters have become central advisers, helping to assess candidates and issues, drafting advertisements, and even structuring policy proposals. In so doing pollsters play a prominent role in governance.
Within scholarly communities pollsters are spread widely in the social sciences, working for academic institutions to further knowledge about human thoughts and behavior. In addition to political science, pollsters work in sociology, communication, psychology, public health, and economics pursuing studies relevant to each discipline. The well-known studies of consumer confidence produced by pollsters at the University of Michigan, for instance, help forecast future business conditions. Likewise the Euro barometer has become widely used by scholars to compare attitudes across countries. Though most pollsters working in the early twenty-first century are nonacademics, much of their training came from universities, and academics often take advantage of data produced by nonacademic polls.
SEE ALSO Campbell, Angus; Converse, Philip; Exit Poll; Key, V. O., Jr.; Miller, Warren; Polling; Polls, Opinion; Survey
Asher, Herbert B. 2004. Polling and the Public: What Every Citizen Should Know. Washington, DC: CQ Press.
Erikson, Robert S., and Kent L. Tedin. 2005. American Public Opinion: Its Origin, Contents, and Impact. 7th ed. New York: Pearson Longman.
Gallup, George, and Saul Forbes Rae. 1940. The Pulse of Democracy: The Public-Opinion and How It Works. New York: Simon and Shuster.
Norrander, Barbara, and Clyde Wilcox, eds. 2002. Understanding Public Opinion. Washington, DC: CQ.