Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

December 20, 2015

Polling problematics

Filed under: Syria — louisproyect @ 12:46 am

From Assad diehard Stephen Gowans:

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From ORB International website:

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From Jill Lepore article in the New Yorker titled “Politics and the New Machine: What the turn from polls to data science means for democracy“:

Gallup had always wanted to be a newspaper editor, but after graduating from the University of Iowa, in 1923, he entered a Ph.D. program in applied psychology. In 1928, in a dissertation called “An Objective Method for Determining Reader Interest in the Content of a Newspaper,” Gallup argued that “at one time the press was depended upon as the chief agency for instructing and informing the mass of people” but that newspapers no longer filled that role and instead ought to meet “a greater need for entertainment.” He therefore devised a method: he’d watch readers go through a newspaper column by column and mark up the parts they liked, so that he could advise an editor which parts of the paper to keep printing and which parts to scrap.

In 1932, when Gallup was a professor of journalism at Northwestern, his mother-in-law, Ola Babcock Miller, ran for secretary of state in Iowa. Her late husband had run for governor; her nomination was largely honorary and she was not expected to win. Gallup had read the work of Walter Lippmann. Lippmann believed that “public opinion” is a fiction created by political élites to suit and advance their interests. Gallup disagreed, and suspected that public opinion, like reader interest, could be quantified. To get a sense of his mother-in-law’s chances, Gallup began applying psychology to politics. The year of the race (she won), Gallup moved to New York, and began working for an advertising agency while also teaching at Columbia and running an outfit he called the Editors’ Research Bureau, selling his services to newspapers. Gallup thought of this work as “a new form of journalism.” But he decided that it ought to sound academic, too. In 1935, in Princeton, he founded the American Institute of Public Opinion, with funding provided by more than a hundred newspapers.

In 1936, in his syndicated column Gallup predicted that the Literary Digest would calculate that Alf Landon would defeat F.D.R. in a landslide and that the Digest would be wrong. He was right on both counts. This was only the beginning. “I had the idea of polling on every major issue,” Gallup explained. He began insisting that this work was essential to democracy. Elections come only every two years, but “we need to know the will of the people at all times.” Gallup claimed that his polls had rescued American politics from the political machine and restored it to the American pastoral, the New England town meeting. Elmo Roper, another early pollster, called the public-opinion survey “the greatest contribution to democracy since the introduction of the secret ballot.”

Gallup’s early method is known as “quota sampling.” He determined what proportion of the people are men, women, black, white, young, and old. The interviewers who conducted his surveys had to fill a quota so that the population sampled would constitute an exactly proportionate mini-electorate. But what Gallup presented as “public opinion” was the opinion of Americans who were disproportionately educated, white, and male. Nationwide, in the nineteen-thirties and forties, blacks constituted about ten per cent of the population but made up less than two per cent of Gallup’s survey respondents. Because blacks in the South were generally prevented from voting, Gallup assigned no “Negro quota” in those states. As the historian Sarah Igo has pointed out, “Instead of functioning as a tool for democracy, opinion polls were deliberately modeled upon, and compounded, democracy’s flaws.”


  1. Great Post, very interesting data. Totally opposite to what we are fed by US dominated media.

    Comment by mukul chand — December 20, 2015 @ 3:48 am

  2. you have a point, but what’s the relevance to this poll exactly? what syrians think an interesting and important topic, so i’d be interested in hearing more on this here.

    of interest: https://magpie68.wordpress.com/2015/12/10/the-house-of-commons-contract-with-syria/#respond

    Comment by guccimane — December 20, 2015 @ 12:22 pm

  3. Someone on my blog commented that the Assad apologists were using this data to try and prove something.First thing to note is that they really need to reread their back catalogue: They have always claimed that the regime has the support of “the vast majority” of Syrians, citing either a spurious 70% or, in their headier moments, the 2014 election result of 88%. Here they are reduced to settling for 47%. Secondly, while 47% are claiming Assad is a positive influence, 50% are saying the opposite. You can’t simply compare the scores obtained by these different actors – only one of them – Assad – claims to be governing the country (although ISIS has a sort of parallel claim). Respondents evaluating the Syrian coalition may be evaluating it negatively because its a crap opposition.
    However, the really striking thing about the data is that it shows how deeply divided the country is: Assad can get an 80% “positive” rating in Damascus and the Alawite heartland, but he’s less popular than the local taxman in others – in Idlib his score is 9%. Assad has a net positive rating in 7 governorates and a net negative one in the other 7. 75% of his support comes from areas his forces control.He’s even highly unpopular in the YPG-controlled areas where there hasn’t been very little conflict with the regime.
    So – a very long way from the universally loved unifier of the nation that the apologists portray.
    For a lengthier review of his issue go to http://wp.me/p3bB6x-2w and scroll down to the Comments.

    Comment by magpie68 — December 20, 2015 @ 2:12 pm

  4. It’d be critical to know the exact method for selecting the sample. As is well known, the reliability of any inductive generalization depends on the size, spread and randomness of the sample. How was this polling carried out? How many people contacted in each area, by what means, etc.?

    A quite a different thing that pollsters cannot control for is how people *actually respond* to a stranger calling them and asking them their opinion in a war situation, in which saying one wrong word can land you and your family in jail, tortured or murdered.

    Back in 2009, some idiots were trying to push a “poll”, taken a couple of months before the Iranian elections, to “prove” that Ahmadinejad’s victory was legitimate. Frankly, I am not sure how any polls in Syria (or Iran, etc.) can be conducted in a way that guarantees the accuracy of the inductive generalizations reached based on the results.

    Having said that, I believe in most revolutions, about one third of the population is actively for the revolution, one third is with the existing system, and one third just wants to live and not get blown away by either side.

    Comment by Reza — December 20, 2015 @ 6:15 pm

  5. @ Reza Strictly speaking you are quite right. ORB don’t seem to provde much detail on its methodology but the sample for this poll was 1365, which seems reasonable. and they say the poll was conducted “face-to-face”; the sample was spread across all 14 governorates, andit looks as if the sample was structured to reflect population distribution and demographics (gender, age, education) with responses weighted to reflect the composition of the population. So its probably as robust as you can get in the circumstances. There is so much uncertainty surrounding polling in this sort of context that I don’t think its worth getting too fussy beyond that. I just think the results are better than nothing, and if we treat them as subject to a wide margin of error we can regard them as giving us an approximate picture of sentiment on the ground in Syria. I don’t know that I would make it a unversal law – and Syria is obviously a dynamic situation: but your “law of one-thirds” is probably not far from the mark.

    Comment by magpie68 — December 20, 2015 @ 7:58 pm

  6. Besides the objection that people are not very likely to give their real opinion in a civil/revolutionary war situation, here is the other thing that I’m highly skeptical of: 43% of Syrians think Iran is a positive. Really?

    This is a highly suspect figure. Iranians are absolutely hated in Syria, and the hatred must surely be shared by some even inside the Assad regime who don’t like being ordered around by Ajams (as we Iranians are called by Arabs). Iranian Quds commanders are almost running the Assad “strongholds”, and we can be sure that a lot of Syrian supporters of the regime are not happy about that at all.

    Comment by Reza — December 20, 2015 @ 9:08 pm

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