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The Public “Gets It”

The Monmouth University Polling Institute and the Gannett New Jersey newspaper group just released a series of polls assessing New Jersey’s reaction to Governor Corzine’s toll hike plan and budget proposal. One of the questions I am frequently asked as a pollster is if the public can truly understand what’s going on, particularly in terms of the details.

My response is that while most individuals do not absorb all the finer points of public policy, the body politic tends to “get it” even for complex issues. This view has its roots in the concept of “collective wisdom” – the idea that the knowledge of a group qua group is superior to that of the vast majority of its members.

Perhaps the best known demonstration of collective wisdom in action was recorded during the turn of the 20th century. Sir Francis Galton, an anthropologist and statistician – and relative of Charles Darwin – was attending a county fair and became intrigued by a competition to guess the weight of an ox. He watched as 800 local residents attempted a guess, but no one came up with the animal’s actual weight – 1,198 pounds. Curious about the villagers’ apparently universal lack of estimating ability, Galton recorded each of their guesses and calculated the average estimate for the entire group. It turned out to be 1,197 pounds!

Journalist James Surowiecki recounts this episode in his book The Wisdom of Crowds. Surowiecki posits that “under the right circumstances, groups are remarkably intelligent, and are often smarter than the smartest people in them.”

What does that mean for public opinion polls, especially those that ask the public to assess complex spending and financial restructuring issues? Well, the public might not know every line in a budget, but they can develop a pretty good sense of whether they trust the approach that is taken by their political leaders. And collectively, they can be pretty on-target in understanding the scope of an issue.

So, the Monmouth University/Gannett New Jersey Poll tried an experiment. We asked New Jersey residents to estimate exactly how much debt the state is in. Among the two-thirds of poll respondents brave enough to hazard a guess, only about 10% were able to come within $5 billion of the actual figure (which is somewhere between $30 and $32 billion, depending on who you ask). However, when all the guesses were averaged together, the collective estimate stood at an amazingly accurate $31.6 billion!

On the national level, the Gallup Poll did this on a somewhat less weighty topic. That pollster asked its respondents to estimate the age of the three remaining presidential candidates. They got Barack Obama’s age right on the money at 46, and underestimated Hillary Clinton’s and John McCain’s ages by only four years (the average guess was 56 for Clinton and 67 for McCain).

So, when you see poll results that indicate – to take a random example – a majority of the public doubting that proposed cuts were made with the needs of the average taxpayer in mind, think of these words from Surowiecki: “Groups do not need to be dominated by exceptionally intelligent people in order to be smart. Even if most of the people within a group are not especially well-informed or rational, it can still reach a collectively wise decision.”

It makes you wonder about the veracity of all estimates by the public. For example, when we asked respondents in an October 2007 poll to guess the percentage of state legislators willing to sell out to lobbyists, the average estimate was 60%. That’s 72 out of 120 legislators. Yikes!


New Jersey Poll Flashback
March 10, 1997: When Governor Christie Whitman wanted to float $2.8 billion in bonds to fund the state pension system, she hoped to move the plan quickly – and quietly – through the legislature. A Star-Ledger/Eagleton Poll found that among those who knew something of the plan, 67% saw it as a gimmick to balance the budget and 73% thought it was simply a way for the governor to push the cost of her tax cuts on to future generations. And, nearly everyone surveyed – 90% – said that this type of borrowing needed to be put on the ballot for a vote. Over time, the state has taken on approximately $27 billion in debt obligations, including some that were declared unconstitutional, where the voters had no say.