From now until election day Nov. 2, those who even casually follow American politics will seldom be far apart from polls. Americans devour polls. They are our form of national temperature-taking. By now, it seems that nearly every self-respecting FM radio station or weekly shoppers' guide must have its very own poll. And with the proliferation of polls come numbers or percentages for just about everyone, on just about every side of a public issue, to cite.
Are you, like President Reagan, in favor of returning prayer to the public schools? Then, you probably know that, according to the Washington Post-ABC News survey, Americans "approved of schools having a required time for the regular reading of prayer" by 69- 28 percent. Or maybe you, unlike the president, support ratification of the Equal Rights constitutional amendement. If so, you will probably mention the Gallup poll that reported that Americans endorse ERA ratification by the highest margin yet recorded, 63-32 percent. The rule in political argument goes something like this: use the polls to prove popular support for your position; if the polls are not with you, embrace the Constitution and emphasize conscience.
But before survey numbers are entirely substituted for logic in our public debates, it would be helpful for all non-pollsters, i.e. the public, to know the questions that were asked and how they were asked. The importance of questions and context is available for viewing in a gubernatorial primary campaign now being waged in what is widely called "a major industrial state." "There, one Democratic candidate for governor has retained the polling services of the nationally known Cambridge Survey Research firm. Cambridge Survey, which until November of 1980 did the polling for Jimmy Carter, asked this question about one of its client's primary opponents (only the names have been changed to protect the innocent): "As you may know, in 1974, 'Candidate Charisma', who had gotten married six months earlier, was arrested on a morals charge with three women in a hotel room. He also used a bad check to pay for the women's services, and subsequently resigned as mayor of his city. Does this make you much more likely, somewhat more likely, somewhat less likely, or much less likely to support Candidate Charisma for governor this year?"
How about that, sports fans? Do you think presentation of that indictment (which contains at least five factual errors) would help obtain a more accurate picture of true voter attitudes in the upcoming primary? At the very least, some negative information on Candidate Charisma has been authoritatively imparted to some five or six hundred voters who were interviewed for the poll. Context is important for the polls and for the political stories accompanying them between now and November. It does matter what questions were asked and when they were asked.
American voters are complicated people; they are also passionate on certain matters and indifferent on others. That's why polls are sometimes seemingly contradictory and why to insist upon seeing the context and the questionnaires in 1982.