A Nation Divided? What We Learned By Talking To 3 Million American Voters
The average political poll uses a sample of only 1,000 people to measure the opinions of our nation. This past year, door knockers using Polis had over 3 million face-to-face conversations with American voters. What we learned might surprise you.
To many, it is commonly accepted that our country is more divided than ever. Public opinion polls including AP’s Divided America and Pew Research show that Americans can’t agree on the proper role of government, the best ways to boost the economy and the benefits of immigration.
Data from our conversations painted a different picture. This past year, canvassers using Polis knocked over 10 million doors, and had over 3 million in-person conversations with Americans in 21 states. Rather than finding a nation divided, our canvassers saw a nation willing to find common ground.
For example, when spoken to in-person by canvassers of both political parties, 90% of Americans say that they are passionate about improving our education system (regardless of whether they have children at home).
Furthermore, 76% of Americans recognize the academic achievement gap between white students and minority students and want to solve it, with an additional 75% believing that the issue of income inequality is a major problem deserving of attention.
An additional 72% of Americans said they were passionate about solving the opioid epidemic.
These are all issues that could divide us — whether along party, racial, or socioeconomic lines. But when talking to their neighbors instead of an anonymous voice on the phone, people were more likely to agree than disagree. All of these numbers were consistent (within 10%) between ideological backgrounds, states, ethnic backgrounds and income levels.
So what’s driving this disconnect? Our data uses a much larger sample and may be less susceptible to bias. On the other hand, phone polls are notoriously non-representative — only reaching people with landlines and thus ignoring the young and the underprivileged. Also, many people who would simply hang up on a polling call actively engage in conversation with our canvassers. Our canvassers have a 20% response rate compared with most well-known polls that experience a response rate below 10%.
But there’s likely something more at play here. Face-to-face conversations inherently bring people together. Canvassers who are likely to be affected by potential legislation (e.g. Muslims canvassing against a Muslim ban or transgender people campaigning for LGBTQ rights) can sway more than 10% of voters to their cause. Similarly, when a canvasser talks to a voter in-person about an upcoming election, the likelihood of that voter remembering to vote goes up by 20%. Unlike polling calls, canvassing encourages dialogue which itself builds consensus.
Why does this matter? Polling data, amplified by the internet and the media, shapes our perception of our national identity. Commentators have gone so far as to claim that Americans today lack empathy. Reports like this contribute to trust in government falling to an all-time low and the majority of Americans feeling divided.
Our experience at Polis shows that this pessimism may be misplaced. Americans have empathy. Our canvassers experienced it first-hand more than 3 million times when people opened their doors to talk with them. And through their work — sharing experiences and reminding people of our common humanity — those same canvassers helped build our national capacity for consensus.
It may be true that a house divided against itself cannot stand — but maybe we are more united than we think.