A new kind of opinion research could yet prove that an informed
and engaged citizenry may be the essential foundation for successful
and thoughtful policy- and decision-making in a democracy.
Deliberative Polling brings a representative sample of people together,
provides information from both sides of an issue and then allows
them the opportunity to talk about those issues. The process, developed
by Dr. James Fishkin of the Department of Government at The University
of Texas at Austin, provides a glimpse of the way information and
discussion can change people’s minds.
“It’s a way to measure what the public would think
about an issue if they were better informed,” Fishkin said.
The team of Fishkin, director, and Dr. Robert Luskin, research director,
is the core of The Center for Deliberative Polling at the university.
Dr. James Fishkin (left) and Dr. Robert Luskin of the Center
for Deliberative Polling will be conducting another poll in
Philadelphia focused on America's role in the world.
“There is a lot of interest in political science as to what
a more informed public would be like,” Fishkin said. “There
are a lot of political scientists who thought it wouldn’t
make any difference, and we’ve shown that it does.”
They are about to conduct the 21st Deliberative Poll, Jan. 11-13
in Philadelphia at the second National Issues Convention. This event,
portions of which will be hosted by newsman Jim Lehrer and broadcast
on National Public Television, will bring together hundreds of Americans
from across the country and all walks of life to discuss the role
of America in the world. The first National Issues Convention was
conducted at The University of Texas at Austin in 1996.
“There is a lot of social science where people have argued—not
on any very good basis—that we don’t need a more informed
public,” Fishkin said. “I’m quite happy to make
the argument that we do, and to be able to demonstrate what difference
it would make. We’ve been able to show that after people deliberate
and focus on an issue their opinions change, and we’ve been
able to show that the opinion change is driven by their becoming
Fishkin said one of the strengths of Deliberative Polling is that
it allows participants to be heard by policymakers and officials
who take part in the event.
“We’ve been able to show that everybody can deliberate,”
Fishkin said. “That is, change in the poll does not correlate
with education, income, class or profession. It’s entirely
democratic. We’ve been able to construct the process in such
a way that all sectors of society are able to participate in the
same way. We’ve also been able to show that participation
in a deliberative process increases civic engagement and interest
in political participation. It has lasting effects.”
In the weeks leading up to the Philadelphia event, a separate online
Deliberate Poll was conducted in collaboration with the Political
Communication Lab at Stanford University. This Internet-based experiment
will allow the researchers to compare online and face-to-face deliberation.
The process for this and other Deliberative Polls begins with a
baseline poll of a random, representative sample of the population.
All of the interviewees are then invited to gather for several days
to discuss the issue in question with others. Carefully balanced
briefing materials are sent in advance to each of the participants,
who then come together to discuss the issues in small, moderated
groups. At the conclusion of the discussions the participants are
“It is a combination of things that makes this method unique,”
Luskin said. “Ordinary polls give you a picture of what people
think about the issues, however little, unreflective and changeable
that may be—and almost always is. Focus groups and other more
intense methods give you a picture of what people may think when
they start to think and learn more, but don’t use representative
samples. We start with a high quality, random sample. We interview
them, then inform them and give them an opportunity to think about
and discuss the issues, and then interview them again.
Gore takes questions at the first National Issues Convention
held at The University of Texas at Austin in 1996.
“By the second interview, their opinions rest on considerable
information and thought,” Luskin said. “You get a picture
of what the whole public would think about issues if they knew or
thought much about them.
“An important background fact to keep in mind while interpreting
the results of ordinary polls is that most people know very little
about most issues,” Luskin added. “Many interviewees
have never really thought about the question before and their responses
are therefore flimsy. If you ask the same people the same question
some time later, there is usually only a modest correlation between
the two answers.”
Deliberative Polls have been conducted by the team in the United
States, Australia, Denmark, Bulgaria and Great Britain, and have
shown dramatic shifts in opinions of the sample population after
the event. The issues tackled in these Deliberative Polls have been
complex and have included crime, the adoption of the Euro and the
possible move of a country from a monarchy to a republic.
The upcoming event in Philadelphia will be addressing the issues
of America’s military power, human rights, globalization and
world health, and environmental issues. Luskin said that while it
can’t be predicted how the participants’ views will
change, researchers are sure there will be change.
“They will emerge with more information and having thought
more about the issues,” he said. “We know that some
people will change their minds. What we don’t know is whether
those changes will cancel each other out, or if there will be a
preponderant shift in one direction or another.”
“I think it’s fair to say that the public, in aggregate
if you give them a chance, is very wise,” Fishkin said. “Policymakers
and experts are always surprised at how smart the results are when
people get together and focus on an issue. And it’s usually
some combination of positions that are not entirely predictable
beforehand. It’s not that they move left or right—they
focus on the substance of the issues and come up with some way of
dealing with it that often defies stereotypes. It’s really