OPINION22 June 2022

More unites us than divides us: the state of polling in 2022

North America Opinion Public Sector Trends

In a world dominated by tribal politics, nuance is a rare commodity. Partisan rhetoric tends to overshadow legitimate research, scientific evidence and the truths of public opinion, meaning that societal discourse inevitably suffers. The Harris Poll’s William Johnson elaborates. 

Person ticking a box on a survey form

Western society is more grey than black and white and it is common for people to have conflicting views. We don’t necessarily fit neatly into two different camps. Nuance may be rare, but it has never been more relevant and important.

In my role as chief executive of the Harris Poll, I’ve grown accustomed to the complexities of polling data, specifically in the United States. It is often difficult, and at times impossible, to draw firm conclusions from our research, although big-picture trends have revealed themselves over time.

For instance, Americans are united in their concern for the health of their nation, but divided on which solutions US policymakers should pursue. Across political lines, Americans are concerned about the socioeconomic climate of 2022 – from inflation to stock-market dips and supply-chain disruptions. In cities like Chicago, two-thirds of all residents (including liberals, conservatives and moderates) view homelessness as a public-health crisis. It’s fair to say that Chicagoans agree on many fronts.

Now is the time for researchers to do their best – without any partisan inclination – to appreciate nuance and understand where public opinion lies in cities and countries writ large. We need polling to properly gauge and analyse public sentiment as precursors to making informed decisions. We can’t really determine the sentiment of consumers by strictly looking at behavioural data. If you look solely at ‘ones’ and ‘zeroes’, the world appears black and white, rather than its true shade of grey.

For example, Americans are generally pro-Roe v. Wade, but they are also open to limiting the window of weeks for abortions. They are supportive of the freedoms protected by the First Amendment, but opposed to illegal guns in their neighbourhoods, something that is a possible by-product of the Second Amendment. They are for Black Lives Matter and against defunding the police. We can only understand such nuance by speaking to people, and quantitatively so. That is survey research.

Today’s survey research could use reform. Bias creep is pervasive, with researchers asking questions in slanted ways, or selecting the wrong respondents to answer them. We need to find the correct respondents and ask them the right questions, eliminating any and all bias that researchers may bring to the table. Perhaps most importantly, we must police fraudulent and inauthentic responses without any exception.

Polling is not going away; it is and will always remain necessary if we want to understand the ‘hows’ and ‘whys’ behind behaviours. However, pollsters fail when they set out to confirm their own biases and reaffirm a certain standpoint. The view of the world must be fluid, based on survey responses. I specialise in brand and market research, and researchers like myself need more than purchase history and app data to understand what makes someone tick; we need to dig deeper.

Unfortunately, there are many societal forces that profit from polarisation, driving a wedge between two camps for clicks and views. Both left and right-leaning news outlets are too often culprits, fostering an ‘us versus them’ mentality to rile up their target audience. Bad actors exist, and they feed into a narrative that simply isn’t true – that there are two camps in the first place.

This is not to diminish the mainstream media. We desperately need media members to speak truth to power and hold the powerful accountable, but they can do better, just like researchers can and should do better in their own roles. Good actors exist too, and they inspire others to follow suit.

Common sense matters; human beings are intelligent and complex creatures. Only by understanding their feelings and motivations can decision-makers change our world for the better.

Treat the world like a headline, however, and the existing divisions will only grow deeper.

William Johnson is CEO of the Harris Poll, a global public opinion, market research and strategy firm