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Book Excerpt: The Opinion Makers

David W. Moore explains why the polls we read about in newspapers or hear about on television yield incomplete and even inaccurate conclusions.

An extreme example of how drastically polls can manipulate public opinion occurred shortly after President Bush’s reelection, when he announced that he would try once again to have Congress pass legislation to permit oil drilling in Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR). A national poll released by Republican Frank Luntz in January 2005, on behalf of the Arctic Power interest group, found a public that supported oil drilling in ANWR by a margin of 17 percentage points (51 percent to 34 percent). Yet in direct contradiction, a similar poll conducted December 13 through 15, 2004, by John Zogby for the Wilderness Society found the public opposed to oil drilling in ANWR, by the exact same margin (55 percent opposed to 38 percent in favor).

It seemed more than coincidental that the poll results happened to conform with the desires of the sponsoring organizations. And a look at the questionnaires shows how easy it was to shape the findings into mirror opposites. Luntz preceded his question on oil drilling with 13 questions that dealt with the cost of oil and with energy dependence on foreign countries. By the time the interviewer got to the question of exploring and developing oil reserves in ANWR, many respondents were primed to solve the country’s energy needs by opening up that area to the oil industry. Zogby, on the other hand, framed the issue in a less biased way, asking only one question related to the oil industry before the drilling question. But that one question helped present the issue as an environmental matter, and in that context a solid majority of the respondents opposed oil drilling.

A key to understanding how easy it was to manipulate respondents into giving the desired answers is recognizing that most people had little knowledge about ANWR going into the survey. Eighty-seven percent of Luntz’s respondents, for example, could not say where the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge is located—the same percentage could not identify even one word of the acronym ANWR. In addition, only 8 percent said they knew either a lot or a good deal about the area. Despite this lack of knowledge, only 7 percent of Zogby’s sample and 15 percent of Luntz’s sample declined to offer an opinion. Clearly, information presented over the course of the interview helped many respondents form an instantaneous opinion.

Reprinted from The Opinion Makers: An Insider Exposes the Truth Behind the Polls by David W. Moore. Copyright (copyright sign) 2008 by David W. Moore. By permission of Beacon Press.

Read More: Q&A with David W. Moore