15 September 2011


With hype about Kevin Rudd as "preferred PM" in mind I'm rereading 'Opinion polls: issues and preferred party, and preferred PM, July 2004' (Australian Parliamentary Library Research Note no. 2 2004–05) by Sarah Miskin & Greg Baker, Miskin's 'Interpreting opinion polls: some essential details' (Research Note No. 52, 24 May 2004) [PDF] and the 46 page Victorian Parliamentary Library paper on Public opinion polls [PDF] by Rachel Macreadie from earlier this year.

Macreadie notes the suggestion by Murray Goot in 'Polls as Science, Polls as Spin' (1993) that we -
reject the idea that the polls are in pursuit of some pure, unmediated, pre-existing entity called public opinion and think of the polls instead as guides to what the public is likely to think about an issue given their exposure to certain sorts of information.
She comments that -
This paper examines public opinion polling in Australia and in other jurisdictions, and functions as a guide to interpreting polling results.

Public opinion polls, particularly those released in the lead up to an election, stimulate considerable debate and speculation amongst the media, the public and politicians. Opinion polls essentially attempt to capture public opinion, or the public’s mood, on a given issue at a particular moment in time. Opinion polls are regularly conducted on voting intentions and leadership preferences, but can be undertaken on any social or commercial matter that the polling groups or commissioners of such polls determine. The study of public opinion polling has drawn on journalism and market research and also attracts scholars of history, sociology, psychology and communications.

The primary focus of this research paper is public opinion polling in its political context. The paper is designed as an introduction to the study of public opinion and opinion polling and to provide Parliamentarians with a guide to interpreting and understanding opinion polls, their strengths and limitations. It looks specifically at polling groups in Australia, but also draws on developments and information from other jurisdictions. It cannot, in the space available, provide a comprehensive account of every aspect of this large topic, which has received an extensive amount of research. It does aim to draw on the most salient elements of that research, to assist Members in their duties.

This paper begins in Part A by briefly examining the development of the concept of ‘public opinion’, which importantly underpins the activity and industry of opinion polling. Part A then provides an overview of opinion polling and its modern development, beginning with the first ‘straw’ polls conducted in the 1820s. The essential distinction between quantitative and qualitative methods is discussed. Part B examines the many factors - methodological, social and situational - that account for variations in poll results, while Part C provides a guide to the main polling groups in Australia.

Part D examines the impacts of opinion polls in terms of elections, politicians, policy, polling failures and successes, and the role of journalists. This section also briefly looks at other forms of polling, including exit polls, focus groups, and the controversial practice known as ‘push polling’. Part D concludes by considering recent developments in measuring public opinion, such as social media, internet polling, real-time debate tracking and betting markets.