Polls: Informative Persuasive Biased Deceptive

 January 25, 2023




I wonder how many people accept news articles written about poll results at face value.

Reported poll results might not tell us the truth, the whole truth, and noting but the truth. Why? Because:

  • Pollsters have the skills to develop questions that will yield answers for any desired purpose and thereby mislead.
  • Respondents are victims of time and memory influences.
  • Respondents can intentionally lie.
  • Writers reporting results of polls have an opportunity to exercise their creative skills to serve their own interests as well by distorting and omitting parts of poll data.

U.S. News & World Report reported that from a poll, the respondents named Donald Trump as the second worst president in our history. 

Fair enough. So far.

The list of the ten worst presidents are:

  1. James Buchanan
  2. Donald Trump
  3. Andrew Johnson
  4. Franklin Pierce
  5. William Henry Harrison
  6. Warren G. Harding
  7. Millard Fillmore
  8. John Tyler
  9. Herbert Hoover
10. Zachary Taylor

Of the ten, seven served as our president during the 1800s. Harding left office in 1923. Hoover left office in 1933.

Trump is the only former president listed who was in office during the lifetime of almost every person living today, as a person born in 1934 will be eighty-nine years old before 2023 ends.

Now, get this.

I think it is safe to say the respondents were quick to point out Trump because they remember his  performance. They haven't the faintest notion about the performance of the others. Many of the respondents might have heard their elders speak of Harding and Hoover but how can they know anything about the other seven from personal knowledge? They could only base their answers on readings and opinions of others - both of which can be far from objective.

My earliest memories go back to WWII but I would not pass a pop quiz of 100 questions requiring answers about the major presidential decisions from Harry Truman through George W. Bush.  Perhaps I would pass a quiz about decisions of Obama and Trump.

I have some memories of Nixon's Watergate, Reagan's amnesty and Kennedy's Bay of Pigs, but not much else.

It is interesting the above cited report lists Richard Nixon, George W. Bush, Gerald Ford, and Jimmy Carter as the 14th, 15th, 19th, and 20th worst presidents of the whole lot. Why? Because those presidents are somewhat remembered by many adults today.

Further, the same report states George W. Bush and Richard Nixon were previously ranked among the 10 worst presidents.

Go figure, huh?

Do we have faulty polling methodology at work? Not necessarily. I'm of the opinion good-faith methodology is sound but the above mentioned four bullet point reasons are often in play. 

The report concludes with this:
Were these really America's worst presidents? Read more about the U.S. News Worst Presidents rankings, the history of presidential polling and how difficult it can be to objectively compare one president to the next.

Good advice: The next time you read about a poll - any poll - keep the above four bullet points in mind.