Professor claims polls manipulate public opinion

by Liz Bogut

Contrary to some experts’ claims, President Bill Clinton might not closely rely on opinion polls to help make policy decisions. Instead, he uses them to change public opinion.
At least that’s what one University professor has concluded.
Larry Jacobs, a political science associate professor, has conducted extensive research in politics and public policy that has led him to believe popular myths about polling are backwards.
Jacobs is a panelist today in a discussion, “Politics and Polls: Who’s Spinning Whom,” at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C.
He will also discuss his newest book, “Politicians Don’t Pander: Political Manipulation and the Loss of Democratic Responsiveness,” in the conference today.
“What I have found is the notion of pandering — the notion that public opinion and polls drive policy decisions — is absolutely backwards,” Jacobs said. “Polls are being used to figure out how to change and manipulate public opinion.”
Jacobs began studying politics and public opinion in the 1970s and early 1980s.
“As I studied the topic more and more, I was really struck with the declining influence of public opinion,” Jacobs said.
Jacobs said he has talked with groups all over the country and found politicians aren’t following what people actually support.
In addition to research on pandering, Jacobs has extensively studied health care and Social Security issues.
“I have always been fascinated by politics and the role of government in the everyday lives of citizens,” Jacobs said.
Although Jacobs conducts research at a national level, he said he thinks it is important to engage in the community.
John Sullivan, University political science professor, said Jacobs not only has a national, but a local presence.
“He is very good at taking the academic work that he does and interjecting it into political discourse in a way people can understand,” Sullivan said. “And he does it better than most of us.”
Sullivan said part of what makes Jacobs’ work so unique is how he brings together several different types of research.
Ben Page, a professor at Northwestern University, has followed Jacobs’ work for many years.
“Jacobs’ work is first-rate,” Page said. “He is one of the few people who knows how public opinion is taken account of inside government.”
In addition to Jacobs, Andrew Kohut, director of the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press, and Bill Schneider, polling director at CNN, will attend the panel discussion.

Liz Bogut covers faculty and welcomes comments at She can also be reached at (612) 627-4070 x3217.