US Insights

Kantar's "Path to Public Opinion"

Elizabeth Wilner

US Editor

Politics 09.04.2013 / 00:00

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Three in four Americans see public opinion polling as biased

Consumer researchers regularly map and re-map what's called the "path to purchase," a formerly funnel-shaped route that is constantly changing with time and technology. The "path to public opinion research," by which our opinions about politics and policy are offered, collected, interpreted and reported, is changing with time and technology, too.

On August 9, 2013, New York Times columnist Paul Krugman put out a call on his blog for a poll of public awareness of the status of the US federal budget deficit. A reader-albeit a particularly well-placed one: Google's chief economist-answered Krugman's call by serving up a Google Consumer Survey.

The Krugman/Google bypass of traditional telephone polls and pollsters in favor of a readily available online market research tool is the latest sign of how our path to public opinion research is widening. Formerly one lane stretching from the public as willing participants, to pollsters as respected interpreters, to the news media as the trusted megaphone, it's adding lanes in the form of new technologies and social media, shortcuts with poll aggregators, and detours for shifting attitudes about privacy, politics and the news media.

With this benchmark survey, Kantar aimed to start mapping the path to public opinion. The polling community has done a lot of spadework to address its methodological issues, but without necessarily accounting for the opinions of the public themselves. We asked Americans how they use and value independent public opinion polling; how they perceive the sources that conduct, report and aggregate it; and about larger societal trends that will likely require the public opinion community to adapt in order to stay relevant and trusted.

What they told us:
•  Three out of four Americans see polling as biased. This is the case across all demographic subgroups with little variance.
•  Traditional polling is becoming more and more challenging. Even as phone polls need to account for exploding cell phone usership, cell users are more guarded about participating than landline users. The public's increasing access to opinion data through online survey tools and poll aggregators also raises the stakes for the industry to adapt to technology and trends in order to continue conducting research and be seen as a trusted resource.
•  Social media is not yet seen by the public as a useful source on public opinion despite recent hype about sentiment analysis and predictive ability.

The United States boasts an enviable tradition of sound, independent public opinion research curated by some of the most respected market research brands, public affairs polling firms, news media organizations, universities and foundations in the world. But the community's professionalized ad hoc nature makes it, while genuinely collegial, also intensely competitive. Swift and sweeping modernization is hard to achieve, even as our findings and other evidence suggest it is increasingly necessary.


#1  Three out of four Americans perceive polling to be biased. This is the case across all demographic subgroups with little variance. (Q15A)  Americans particularly distrust the results of polls from candidates, political parties and automated voice recording firms, but news media polls don't inspire widespread trust, either. (Q17A)

While most Americans think polls are biased, a very small percentage think that polls are biased toward conservatives (7%); a slightly larger percentage believe they are biased toward liberals (11%); and a clear majority (57%) just think they're biased in some way. (Q15X*)

Americans have strongly divergent views on the level of trust they place in public polling data: Large percentages of Americans distrust the data they see, regardless of the source of the poll. Sources that fare the best tend to have no perceived agenda: academic centers and nonpartisan foundations. News media and polling companies fall into the middle, while candidates, political parties and voice-automated polling operations are deeply distrusted. (Q17A-B)

When information about the source of the poll is introduced, Americans tend to place more trust in the results. The stronger the brand, the more dynamic the shift. (Q17B)

The poll sponsor is key to willingness to participate: Academics and foundations have the most positive impact on people's willingness to take part in polls (41% say they would be more likely) while social media sites lag (11% say they would be more likely). News organization polls are on par with polls sponsored by political parties or candidates (24% vs. 23%). Note that those who identify as Republicans or Democrats say they are more likely to take part in party- or candidate-sponsored surveys at higher rates than the total sample. (Q11)

Americans value consumer research more than public opinion research: Most Americans claim not to pay attention to polls when considering for what or whom to vote (67% pay not too much attention or none at all). Yet most Americans (59%) say they pay attention to surveys when considering which products and services to buy. (Q5-6)

Safety in numbers: Poll aggregators surpass individual polls as a go-to source for public opinion data (16% vs. 12%) and as an accurate source (20% compared to 15%). (Q20-21) 

New platforms such as Facebook and Twitter still have a ways to go, however, to become a primary source of information about politics and public opinion or to be viewed as an accurate source of this information. (Q20-21)

#2  Poll participants are getting harder to find. Cell phone users' comfort and willingness to take polls are essential to the ongoing health of telephone polling. And the public does not yet see social media as a credible public opinion source.

Cell phones
Cell phones are ubiquitous…: According to the Centers for Disease Control, 91% of Americans own cell phones and landline ownership is in decline; 36.5% of Americans are now cell-only.

…but willingness to take polls on cell phones is not: The challenge this presents, as evidenced in this survey, is that an increasingly large percentage of Americans are less likely to take a poll on their cell phone.

Dual phone users say they are much less likely to take part in a poll on their cell phone: People who own both a cell phone and a landline are more resistant to taking polls on their cell phones (58% say less likely by cell vs. 34% say less likely by landline). (Q10)

Social media
Social media is not yet seen as viable source on measuring public opinion: As noted, very few Americans (11%) see social media as a valuable source of information about public opinion on policy and politics, despite growing interest in predictions and sentiment analysis from social media platforms. (Q20)

Resistance to participation in social media polls: Social media is not yet seen as having a role in public opinion assessment. A majority (60%) is less likely to take a poll conducted on a social media site. (Q11)

Social media is mostly for keeping in touch, not policy or political issues: One of social media's challenges is that only 6% of Americans say they use it to communicate about issues and causes, whereas 61% say they use it only to communicate with friends and family. (Q41)

Widespread skepticism of political communication on social media: Nearly half of Americans (44%) are skeptical of elected officials using Twitter and Facebook to communicate with constituents. Americans still prefer to speak to them face to face at their doorsteps or on the street (66%). (Q19)

#3  Communicating more broadly about research methods, standards and sources is likely to increase public trust in polling data. Other adaptations may be in order, particularly as technology enables greater innovations that increase participation.
Greater transparency: Americans are unclear on whether the news media uses a set of standards when deciding which poll results to report. They are split (51% yes, 40% no) on whether the media applies a common standard to determine which results to cover. (Q18)

Evolving the participant experience: Only four in 10 of Americans say they would take a poll because it's interesting to them or important to the country (24% and 18%). Enjoyment is not part of the equation: only 2% say "fun" would be the main reason why they would participate. (Q13)

Americans still would prefer to take part in a public opinion poll call than take a call from a telemarketer: Six out of 10 report either positive or neutral feelings about pollsters compared to just three out of 10 for telemarketers. (Q16)

*NOTE: Q15X was re-fielded due to a prior programming error. See methodology below for details.

Source: Kantar

Editor's Notes

This Kantar poll obtained telephone interviews with a nationally representative sample of 1,011 US adults age 18 and over.  Interviews were conducted via landline (N=611) and cell phone (N=400) between July 24-August 4, 2013, in English and Spanish, with day- and night-time calling and up to seven callbacks. The survey was conducted for Kantar by TNS.  Random digit dial samples for those with access to a landline or cell phones were obtained from SSI. 

Results were weighted first by phone usage and second by age, sex, geographic region, race/ethnicity, education, and phone usage to adjust for demographic discrepancies. The margin of error at a 95% confidence level for an unweighted sample of N=1,011 is +/-3.1 percentage points. The margin of error at a 95% confidence level for an unweighted half sample of N=505 is +/-4.4 percentage points. The margin of error for the unweighted partial sample of N=562 for Q15X is +/-4.1 percentage points. The design effect (DEFF) for this survey is 1.62. 

For inquiries about the poll, contact us.

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