ABC News' Guide to Polls & Public Opinion

It may be helpful, as well, to recognize the extent to which we all use polls. Think for a moment about the unemployment rate. Where do they get that?

The simple answer: It's a poll. The U.S. Census Bureau calls up a random sample of adults and asks who's working. It's a big sample, so the error margin is small - two-tenths of a percentage point. But it's still no more or less than a poll.

It's the same with many, maybe most, of the government statistics you hear every day. Inflation, housing starts, factory orders, you name it - all are the results of random-sample survey research.

Say Cheese

Naturally, polls have their limits. They are quantitative rather than qualitative - good at finding out what people think, but only suggestive of why. That's where thoughtful, sensible data analysis comes into play.

Polls are also, as is often said, "a snapshot in time." But that phrase too often is used to portray public opinion as flighty and mercurial, bouncing along aimlessly with no thought or reason behind it. That's clearly not the case. When we track public opinion over time, we find that in fact it's usually very stable - supported by evidence, experience and common sense and changing only when relevant information warrants it.

Public opinion confounds conventional wisdom at least as often as it confirms it. That's why it's so unwise to seek it through the filter of pundits, spinmeisters, intuition or a self-selected sample. If we truly want to know what people think, there's one tested and proven way to find out: Assemble a random sample of Americans, call them up - and ask

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