Strength in Numbers
How Polls Work and Why We Need Them
An insightful exploration of political polling and a bold defense of its crucial role in a modern democracy.
Public opinion polling is the ultimate democratic process; it gives every person an equal voice in letting elected leaders know what they need and want. But in the eyes of the public, polls today are tarnished. Recent election forecasts have routinely missed the mark and media coverage of polls has focused solely on their ability to predict winners and losers. Polls deserve better.
In Strength in Numbers, data journalist G. Elliott Morris argues that the larger purpose of political polls is to improve democracy, not just predict elections. Whether used by interest groups, the press, or politicians, polling serves as a pipeline from the governed to the government, giving citizens influence they would otherwise lack. No one who believes in democracy can afford to give up on polls; they should commit, instead, to understanding them better.
In a vibrant history of polling, Morris takes readers from the first semblance of data-gathering in the ancient world through to the development of modern-day scientific polling. He explains how the internet and “big data” have solved many challenges in polling—and created others. He covers the rise of polling aggregation and methods of election forecasting, reveals how data can be distorted and misrepresented, and demystifies the real uncertainty of polling. Candidly acknowledging where polls have gone wrong in the past, Morris charts a path for the industry’s future where it can truly work for the people.
Persuasively argued and deeply researched, Strength in Numbers is an essential guide to understanding and embracing one of the most important and overlooked democratic institutions in the United States.
Praise For Strength in Numbers: How Polls Work and Why We Need Them…
— Publishers Weekly
Readers with a bent for statistics will take interest…Morris makes a solid case for polls as tools to give voice to the people while allowing that improvements are needed.
— Kirkus Reviews
I can’t count the number of times people have asked me to explain polling and its errors. In the future my answer will simply be, ‘Read G. Elliott Morris’s superb book, Strength in Numbers.’ With a volume rich in useful detail and relevant history, Morris explains what has gone wrong with surveys in recent years and, more important, how to make public opinion polling better.
— Larry J. Sabato, director of the University of Virginia Center for Politics
Many Americans may be ready to give up on polls, but through this engaging history of public-opinion research, Elliott Morris makes the case that they make our politics better, not worse. And he’s brimming with urgent ideas for how all of us—citizens, journalists, pollsters, and politicians—can make better use of a tool essential to a healthy democracy.
— Sasha Issenberg, author of author of The Engagement
This book reads like a suspenseful whodunnit, tragedy, and love story for data. Packed with surprising history, fresh insights, and wise reforms, this is a landmark work that everyone who cares about society and politics must read.
— Kenneth Cukier, coauthor of Big Data
Morris provides a well-reported and thoughtful defense of the polls, while acknowledging their limitations. Strength in Numbers makes a timely and valuable contribution to the polling literature.
— Karlyn Bowman, Senior Fellow, American Enterprise Institute
A compelling, accessible, and needed history lesson on the place of public opinion in our politics and a clearheaded rejoinder to the poll-bashers.
— Carlos Odio, cofounder, Equis Research
A vibrant and compelling intellectual history of polling that will make you a much smarter and savvier reader of all those polls.
— Lee Drutman, Senior Fellow, New America Political Reform Program
In this lively story of the struggles and successes of polling from Gallup to the present day, Morris makes a convincing case that the measurement of public opinion is a key component of modern democracy.
— Andrew Gelman, Higgins Professor of Statistics, Columbia University
Strength in Numbers provides an engaging and illuminating journey from the earliest days of polling to the challenges that the survey industry is currently facing. What Morris’s enlightening book shows us is that pollsters have always faced—and ultimately overcome—obstacles in their attempts to accurately capture public opinion. Why should the current moment be any different, especially when we need polls now more than ever to help fulfill the promise of a government that responds to the wishes and demands of its people.
— Brian Schaffner, Newhouse Professor of Civic Studies, Tufts University
W. W. Norton & Company, 9780393866971, 224pp.
Publication Date: July 12, 2022