Poll numbers are thrown around all the time in ways that can seem conflicting, and somehow always "prove" whatever narrative is being defended.
Let's look at how we can understand the polls being used by looking at a specific claim as an example.
The claim is often made that the majority of Americans support Universal Healthcare.
It is often levied as proof that politicians just don't care about what the public wants.
So, is that true?
Are the results being reported accurately?
One 2020 national poll is often used to justify the idea that 63% support Universal Healthcare. That statistic has been thrown around so much it's often treated as common knowledge.
But in reality it says that ~36% support a single-payer system, and another ~26% support a public option. Combined those two show 63% support for increased government involvement. That's obviously different!
Who is doing the polling
Is this a non-partisan, well-known polling group, like Pew Research, or is this poll funded by a partisan think tank or advocacy group?
Being funded by a partisan group doesn't mean the results are incorrect, but our confidence in them should be much lower.
Who is being polled?
There is often a significant disconnect between the opinion of the general public, and the opinion of active voters. Pay attention to whether polls use active voters.
Most polls that show support for Universal Healthcare in the US are not polling voters.
Also pay attention to regions polled and sample sizes. If only major cities are polled for instance, or only a few blue states, then the results might lean pretty heavily towards progressive results.
What is being asked?
When being funded by partisan groups, it's not unusual to see those polls use leading questions to get the results they want.
But even beyond that we need to look at the questions to see how specific they were.
There is a difference between asking broad questions about supporting the idea of Universal Healthcare vs supporting a specific proposal that a party or politican has raised.
People are far more likely to support things in the abstract and balk at the details of an actual proposal. This is especially true on major policy proposals that, if implemented incorrectly, could have devastating impacts on their lives.
We saw that in the 2020 presidential primary election. All of the candidates combined who had Universal Healthcare proposals garnered less than 35% of the popular vote.
Is this an issue that will change votes?
There are a lot of things voters want. But there are few things that motivate them to switch from voting for their default party. We see that consistently every voting cycle.
Republican voters in poorer regions consistently vote in politicians that financially harm them, but are motivated by other key issues their religious leaders tell them are critical, like abortion.
An issue like Universal Healthcare has not yet become a key voting issue. Neither has drug legalization, and many other important issues. Fear is a highly motivating factor, as are religious ideologies. Uniting people around progressive ideas is an inherently harder challenge.
How do the voters of a particular candidate feel about the issue?
It is often the case that the voters of individual politicians do not align with the average of voters across the country. Some areas are far more liberal, and some far more conservatives.
Pragmatic politicians understand that voting for something their constituents don't support will likely result in them losing their next election.
If they believe that being elected will allow them to do more good (in other areas) than not being elected, then they will support only the changes their voters support. This is how representative democracies work.
There are of course other issues that come into play in scenarios where things like gerrymandering distort that representation. That is a separate challenge though.
Savvy politicians generally understand, or rely on experts who understand, what polls are actually supporting, not just what is popular on social media.
We saw that in the 2020 election, where Biden's policy proposal for healthcare was tailored to what people were actually comfortable with, which was a public option.
Polls can be manipulated to tell us what we want to hear. They can ask a non-representative group about abstract ideas and give us a poor impression of what will motivate voters in the voting booth.
While citizens have the luxury of adhering to ideologies, effective politicians are pragmatic and support changes that will improve lives and not cause them to lose an election and see their progress reversed.