Insightful alternative to polling

There’s a practical bent to polling today that doesn’t allow for the serendipitous exploration of hidden trends in public opinion. Candidates, interest groups and corporations want to collect poll data that’s actionable, not merely interesting.

In times like these, we turn to other indicators of sentiment to explore the unseen zeitgeist of the public. One of the best of these alternatives to polls is free. I’m referring to tallies that online newspapers provide of lists like “most e-mailed” or “most blogged.” These provide insight into the heart of public opinion today and even measure actions that flow from opinions. What opinions are so powerful, and stimulate such passion, that we want to share them with others through e-mailing or blogging? These are issues that should make the political world turn.

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I know that newspaper readers don’t necessarily constitute a random sampling of the general public, particularly when we are speaking of national papers like The New York Times, Wall Street Journal and USA Today. But the people who read and interact with these papers should give us some ideas about a slice of the public we sometimes refer to as “opinion leaders,” a sort of elite subset of voters who keep up with politics more regularly and are in a position to shape the opinions of others. What these thought leaders are thinking today is likely to be reflected in the opinions of trend followers in the days, weeks and years ahead. At least that’s the theory.

OK, so what are these people thinking about today? Deep thoughts? About profound topics? Of national import? Maybe. Maybe not. The New York Times is the best resource because its “Most Popular” feature provides lists for most-e-mailed, most-blogged and most-searched categories. Furthermore, the Times provides detailed views for the past 24 hours, past seven days and past 30 days. The lists are longer than just the Top 5 or Top 10, too.

It’s a garden of earthly delights for a pollster to explore. On Tuesday morning, the most-searched topic of the past seven days was not recession, foreclosures, Somali pirates, earthquakes, Bernie Madoff or gay marriage. The winner was “Michelle Obama.” Over the past 30 days, the third-most-searched topic was “Jon Stewart.” So, in the privacy of their own homes and offices, our opinion leaders are celebrity-chasers.

What are we thinking to impress others? Here we get more serious. But not about traditional public policy issues. In the past seven days, people were mostly e-mailing others stories about “good news from Iowa” (about farmers, not gay marriage), prostate testing, travel tips, faith and philosophy. Out of the Times’s top-25 e-mailed stories last week, only one, “World Leaders Pledge $1.1 Trillion for Crisis,” might be deemed a serious policy news item. It’s only The New York Times bloggers who seem to care about serious issues.

Over at The Wall Street Journal, not much was different. The fourth-most-e-mailed article was “Why a big meal makes you hungry,” while at USA Today the fifth-most-e-mailed item was “Passenger lands plane in Fla. after pilot dies.” While the Gannett paper’s bloggers are also more serious, the third “most commented”-on item was a culture column titled “Pop Candy.”

In sum, I know we lack consumer confidence in this recession and are worried to death about losing our jobs, homes and cars. After all, the serious public polls tell us this is so. But what we may be really worried about when the pollster isn’t calling is what Michelle is going to be wearing next. Or we may be fretting about getting hungry after a big meal. Or being asked to land a plane whose pilot has died. These are the things we really want to talk about.

Hill is director of Hill Research Consultants, a Texas-based firm that has polled for GOP candidates and causes since 1988.