Are Public Opinion Polls Always Right? Surveys Say ‘No’

A majority of Americans believes that increased natural gas exports would create U.S. jobs and stimulate the domestic economy, or at least that’s what a lobbying group for the energy industry would have you believe. But what people tell pollsters doesn't always reflect the lay of the land.

May 25, 2014 at 4:43PM

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A majority of Americans believes that increased natural gas exports would create U.S. jobs and stimulate the domestic economy, or at least that's what a lobbying group for the energy industry would have you believe. But what people tell pollsters doesn't always reflect the lay of the land.

The national poll of 1,000 registered voters was conducted by the American Petroleum Institute (API), whose members favor exports. In a press release to announce the results, the group's chief economist, John Felmy, said the United State should use its position at the top of the natural gas heap to help stimulate the domestic economy.

"Voters understand that natural gas exports will create thousands of jobs and strengthen America's position on the international stage," he said. "America is now the world's top natural gas producer and U.S. workers are ready to harness that energy to help our allies around the world and cut the trade deficit."

In the telephone survey conducted for API by Harris Poll, 70 percent of registered voters said they agreed that exporting natural gas helps create jobs at home and 67 percent said they believed it would be a good thing for the U.S. economy.

Should lawmakers listen? The fact is, polling data – the crack cocaine of the modern media and agenda setters -- can be biased or flat out wrong.

Polls taken in the late 1980s suggested that Dan Quayle, a Republican lawmaker from Indiana considered a lightweight and George H.W. Bush's chosen running mate in the 1988 presidential election, would doom the ticket. Bush went on to take 40 states in the 1988 election, defeating his Democratic challenger, Michael Dukakis, in stunning fashion.

When the Pew Research Forum looked at what issues were on the Americans' minds this past January, it found that jobs and the economy mattered most. Energy didn't even make the top 10.

And what about the idea of gas exports producing economic benefits, anyway? A 2012 U.S. Department of Energy studyfound that some sectors of the U.S. economy would win and some would lose. Further, exports aren't likely to have an overall effect on job numbers, but would merely rearrange existing positions across industries.

There are other issues at play that the API poll didn't mention. When the House Energy and Commerce Committee voted in April in favor of a bill that would make U.S. gas exports easier, the Center for Effective Government cried foul. The group said gas exports would not only lead to more fracking -- the cause de jour of the environmental community -- but also higher energy bills for Americans.

The API gas export poll asked voters how familiar they were with the fact the United States is the top natural gas producer in the world, and 67 percent said "very familiar."

In the Pew survey, however, less than half the people surveyed even knew that domestic gas production has increased.

Public opinions do influence policy. But is that always good thing? A professional is someone who's considered an expert, so basing matters of public policy on the opinions of a random sample of people might not be the best peg on which to hang the hat of the nation's agenda.

When Edward Chow, an expert on energy at the Center for Strategic International Studies, testified before Congress recently about the pros and cons of natural gas exports, his answer spoke volumes about what he sees as the risk of listening too closely to public opinion: "These are complicated issues," he said, and they "deserve full debate in Congress."

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David Hanson owns shares of Berkshire Hathaway and American Express. The Motley Fool recommends and owns shares of Berkshire Hathaway, Google, and Coca-Cola.We Fools don't all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.

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