Right! George Gallup, one of the pioneers of opinions research, probably the best-known single pollster of all time, said something like, This is the best technique that has ever been devised in a democracy for evaluating public opinion. Of course, he was not a disinterested critic of polling by any means, and we might take his comment with a grain of salt. But at the same time, it’s kind of right, because what other systematic method of evaluating public opinion has really been developed?
Every time there’s a major polling failure it seems like the news media says, We have got to go out and talk to the people. We have to do more shoe-leather journalism—and that’s fine. But it also becomes very impressionistic. Are you talking to the right people? How do you know that the insights you get from the person on the street are better than a systematic evaluation of public opinion? So it falters. Shoe-leather journalism sounds appealing, and it’s a good technique to get reporters out from behind screens, talking to people, and all that. It’s an effective supplemental tool, but I don’t think it’s the answer. I’ve studied too many of these cases of polling failure and seen how every time shoe-leather journalism is identified as the remedy. It’s not a panacea; it really isn’t.