If you’re a subscriber to the Decision Desk HQ newsletter, you’ve probably already seen our Derek Willis’ conversation with G. Elliott Morris on his book, “STRENGTH IN NUMBERS: How Polls Work and Why We Need Them” (if you’re not, you can sign up for FREE in the upper right hand corner of this page). Below is the audio of their complete conversation as well as an extended excerpt.
Here’s more of Derek’s Q&A with Elliott Morris of The Economist, author of the new book Strength in Numbers: How Polls Work and Why We Need Them, out tomorrow, July 12.
Q: I noticed in other portions, you referenced James Madison, who obviously has his own sort of little niche in American politics. I mean, I’ve heard him described as essentially our first sort of full-time politician among the founding fathers group. It strikes me that his framing of polls and public opinion as necessary for republican government is really interesting and maybe underplayed in terms of my own political education.
A: He’s also probably one of our first political scientists, there are lots of the founders who could be. John Adams, obviously, also. Yeah, so what what we miss, I think, in what the book tries to trace in the first paragraph is, yeah, there’s very long history of public opinion and political thought in America as something that should anchor the government and hold it accountable when it strays too far from whatever the people, whatever anchor that people are trying to provide. You know, we use polls every single day, I think there’s probably no day of the week in which a journalist and the national media doesn’t see a poll. There are almost always horse race polls; they’re interpreted as horse race tools. At the very simple level, you can take a survey and ask people, ‘What are the conditions of your daily life? Are they bad right now?’ and you could report that poll as saying, people need a lot of help from their government, or you can report the poll to say Joe Biden’s, you know, going to lose re-election or something. And there are articles on the ladder is the argument the book makes.
Q: The earlier parts of your book read like sort of the history of public opinion and measurement of public opinion, really fascinating to me. I have to confess, I was totally unfamiliar with Emil Hurja. Like I just am not familiar whatsoever. I’m curious why you felt it was important to include him in your book and his role in shaping public opinion in America.
A: So Emil Hurja is the like, I mean, he’s the forgotten George Gallup, I guess he’s in a way, like the forgotten FDR Nate Silver. So the primary reason for including him in the book, I guess, is that his story just hasn’t been told. But in the narrative of the book, he also fits in a very particular place, which is that he is in his time, the smartest person we know of, in the statistical analysis of politics. He is the person who we would expect to influence politics the most behind the scenes of people with numbers or who have information on polls, right. So you know, he’s, he’s FDR’s, whizkid. But basically, he was called the Wizard of Washington, by the press in the 30s, basically, before, but also, while George Gallup is conducting some of his earliest polls in the late 30s, early 40s. And so we would expect if there are, if there’s any influence of the polls, or that a statistical analysis of politics, actually on political figures behind the scenes or in Washington, at that time, that Emil Hurja would be the one making those changes. And there are some anecdotal evidence that he does this. So after the Supreme Court strikes down, some of FDR’s alphabet soup of programs. And big business is sort of coming for FDR, the late 30s. He’s irate he is, you know, in some places, like losing his mind in public, and perhaps being pretty unpopular. And you Hurja just says, you know, your public approval ratings are falling, at least in my tracking, like stop yelling at the Supreme Court and big business, shut up publicly and work behind the scenes at some of your new programs. And that’s what he does. And it works. And he passes the New Works Progress programs in the early 40s, I guess, in 1940. Yeah. And that’s basically it. I mean, he does not reshape the politics for the time, he coaches the president into one, basically one extra victory. And then he has some down-ballot effects to where he says, you know, here are the races that I predict would be closest, here’s where you should put some patronage positions for local leaders, local lawmakers, and that might have marginal effects on the Democratic ticket down ballot, especially in places like where we have pretty good evidence of this, in Michigan and Oregon, in particular, in local races there, and in a congressional races. But he’s not like telling the President and changing his mind about when to go to war, or about the scope of the United States welfare program at the time. And so this particular chapter in the book is about the true capacity for polls to change politics in saying that there are some measurable effects. Many of them are anecdotal and their later anecdotes in the book too. But Emil Hurja is just really the first character I guess we have in modern American history of showing both the promise and limits of how the polls can help people get what they want.
Q: Yeah, I was I was also struck by, you know, he’s advising Roosevelt on things during a time when when populism is on the rise when you have like Huey Long and demagoguery and sort of, and trying to gauge out sort of just how popular a guy like Huey Long was, in 1935 strikes me like now you in hindsight, you’d be like, Sure, a guy who’s like appealing to the masses, but then what is the masses even mean in 1935 technologically and his ability to actually appeal to the masses, how popular a person like that was or is, strikes me as not an easy problem, not a simple problem to solve and, and also has some parallels for me for you know, current events, I suppose, or current climate. You know, like how you measure the popularity of populists or would-be populists compared to sort of institutional popularity and power.
A: So the difference is that, Emil Hurja is just working behind the scenes, basically to help the President position himself against the populists also. So there’s an interesting sort of selection on the dependent variable here, where if, if there were no polls, in this scenario, you might expect the popular people to have ended up being more popular. But of course, I think also Huey Long dies shortly. I guess the point here might be, there’s more political consequences from the polls, and then there are probably policy consequences. And that’s both good for people who are trying to say, like, polls aren’t deterministic. People aren’t making a government based off of the polls. And then, also bad for the people who want the polls to do more of that work of elevating the will of the people in government. So it’s a bit of a double edged sword.
Q: You, in the book, both in your own words, but also in quoting other folks, ranging from Madison to some of these others, talk about public opinion as like a public good, almost as if it were like a utility, like water in some respects. As a product, essentially, that is necessary for deliberation and making policy. I wonder if the public sees it that way, though. And if we’ve done enough, or are there things we can do?
A: Well, to the extent that the book is reporting on what the other people think, I think that’s the right characterization. On the other hand, the founders, the framers and Enlightenment political theorists were as a group pretty skeptical of the wisdom of the average person. I mean, the original institutions for U.S. democracy were so explicitly elitist and discriminatory in that extent. So therefore, civics education in America tends to be skeptical of democracy of group collective action also as a whole, and so, you know, maybe maybe that’s why we observed this disconnect between what the founders say in some of their writing about the wisdom of the people, the principle of majority rule, the lex majoris partis, the will of the majority, and what we’re getting today and what we got at the time. I mean, maybe maybe this is a case of actions speak louder than words, and it’s all talk for whatever. But notably, in a democracy, right, Madison is right, the the only principle that makes a country republican, not even democratic, but just representative is that the majority get gets what it wants, pretty easily, most of the time, with whatever due diligence for deliberation, we want to attach to that. And there’s a lot I think there’s a lot of wisdom in that principle. The pollsters depart from this skepticism about what the public knows. And by the way, it does not know a lot about politics, right, half of the public can name the current Secretary of State, according to a Pew Research poll, like two weeks ago, that’s about the level of knowledge we’ve had among the public for the past 30 years, when political scientists started measuring this … But the pollsters depart from this, they qualified this characterization of the public as, you know, only half right, basically on important matters of government by saying, the polls also offer us diagnoses of problems and of conditions that you don’t get without, without consultation of the people, you don’t get a read of what people want from the government in their day to day life, right, like what social programs they want, where they want money spent. You don’t get, I guess, informed earmarks for legislators without polling or without at least talking to people. And so it’s on those dimensions of public opinion, where I think we see the most clear value and unambiguous contribution from the people, which is hearing roughly the ship of state saying to go generally in this direction. And then politicians, politicians, and their staffers, and people in the DC ideas industry figuring out those details that require a reading of the literature on X and Y and Z. And that’s how they reconcile the wisdom of the people, and by steering the ship of state with the republican principle, you let the people roughly steer it, and you let the people in Washington figure out the real nitty gritty details. And I think that that works. I think, maybe that’s what Madison writes, and Jefferson, for that matter, are thinking of when they’re writing about an anchoring of the government to the democratic consensus, to the extent that they believe in democratic consensus for small groups of people.
Q: When you have a situation, where elements, prominent elements of one major political faction are doing things that are anti democratic, or at least have a lot of the elements of anti-democratic action. Does that impact polling? Do pollsters change, adapt to that or try to just measure that in any way? I mean, is there something where anti-democratic acts can influence polling in some way?
A: I mean, so the book has no answer for this. Thinking of the answer in a comparative sense, the polls in Hungary’s election recently were pretty much bang on accurate in predicting the vote share for Viktor Orban’s party. Polls in – to the extent that the UK Independence Party was populist – and that there are other populist non authoritarian parties far right parties in Europe, the polls have been, on average, accurate, engaging their vote share, as well. So authoritarianism in and of itself does not, again, my first cut of this, it doesn’t seem to me to degrade the quality of, of polls of public use, or the accuracy of polls.
But in America, you have authoritarianism typically. And anti-democracy sentiment might typically come also with the distrust of institutions, and that would map onto distrust of other people. And what we’re seeing in America, which is the people evidently with low trust of others, aren’t responding to the polls. So maybe there is a link here, but I guess, I wouldn’t necessarily think it’s causal.