Public-opinion polling is the practice of gathering opinions and attitudes from individuals about a topic or issue. Public-opinion polls can be used to determine the percentage of individuals who support or oppose a public policy or a specific candidate in an election, to gather key factual information from individuals (for example, the number of hours of television viewed per week), or simply to find out how individuals feel about a certain topic. Public-opinion polls are conducted by news organizations, by researchers at colleges and universities, and by private public-opinion companies and market research organizations.
In Georgia polling organizations can be found at the University of Georgia, Kennesaw State University, and Georgia State University. The Marketing Workshop, Inc. in Atlanta is a private market-research organization that conducts public-opinion polling on a variety of topics and issues. Other private firms in Georgia conduct public-opinion polling about policy issues and elections and candidates.
Generally, survey questions are asked of a sample of individuals, and the responses of this sample are then used to estimate the proportion of the entire population that holds an opinion or attitude on the issue or topic. The sample of individuals questioned usually is selected randomly to produce results that are representative of the entire population. Random selection ensures that everyone in a given population has a nearly equal chance of being included in the sample. Random-sampling procedures also ensure that the results of a survey are accurate within a desired margin of error, or sampling error.
Most public-opinion polls contain at least 400 interviews so that the margin of error for the survey is plus or minus 5 percentage points, but many such surveys contain as many as 1,200 interviews so that differences in opinion among subgroups in the sample can be examined (for example, differences between men and women). The margin of error for a sample of 1,200 interviews would be plus or minus 3 percentage points. Once 1,200 or more interviews are collected, the additional accuracy achieved is often not large enough to offset the increased cost, so most public-opinion surveys are limited to 1,200 interviews.
To conduct a public-opinion survey, a standardized questionnaire is developed, and interviewers ask individuals in the sample the survey questions in a standardized format. Standardization of procedures helps to ensure that the responses to the questions reflect the opinions and attitudes of the individuals being questioned.
Public-opinion polls can be conducted through a telephone survey, a mail or electronic-mail questionnaire, or a personal interview. Each method has advantages and disadvantages. Telephone surveys generally have high response rates but tend to be more costly than mail surveys. Mail surveys have very low response rates but are much less costly to conduct. Personal interviews achieve the highest response rates but are the most expensive method of conducting a public-opinion poll because of travel costs for interviews. E-mail and Internet surveys are inexpensive and take little time to conduct but obtaining e-mail addresses is difficult, there is less confidentiality for participants because of the Internet medium, and e-mail invitations to participate in a public-opinion survey are frequently ignored, and viewed as spam.
Public-opinion pollsters follow particular rules to ensure that the information they gather is accurate. Two national organizations dedicated to quality standards for public-opinion polling activities, the American Association for Public Opinion Research and the Council of American Survey Research Organizations, offer consumers of public-opinion polling information about evaluating public-opinion surveys. The National Network of State Polls offers access to public-opinion data collected in individual states, and the Odum Institute for Research in Social Science offers access to national public-opinion data from the Roper Center for Public Opinion Research, Lou Harris and Associates, and other sources.
Public-opinion polling provides policymakers and public officials with information that can be used to address societal problems. The state of Georgia, for example, relies on information from public-opinion surveys to address a number of pressing state issues, ranging from the prevalence of asthma among Georgia children to the proportion of children in Georgia who are considered overweight; the state even determines the number of hunters in Georgia who have hunted in a given year. Public-opinion surveys allow Georgians to give input and express attitudes on issues ranging from the state flag to traffic to health care. Public-opinion polling will continue to be used in Georgia by many organizations to gather opinions and attitudes across a range of topics.
Herbert F. Weisberg, Jon A. Krosnick, and Bruce D. Bowen, An Introduction to Survey Research, Polling, and Data Analysis (Thousand Oaks, Calif.: Sage Publications, 1996).
James J. Bason, University of Georgia
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