Gallup’s top pollster says that our leaders dont pay enough attention to the wisdom of the people

In the home stretch of a hotly contested presidential campaign, it seems hard to imagine that public opinion is not getting sufficient attention. After all, hardly a day goes by without the release of a new national poll on the presidential horse race, which remains, at press time, neck and neck. It could hardly be said that the opinions of the American people are not being adequately attended to. But that, in fact, is what Frank Newport argues in his recent book, Polling Matters: that public officials, especially, don’t pay enough attention to “the wisdom of the people,” as expressed “scientifically” in public-opinion polling.

WILLIAM MOREE

That Newport should be favorably disposed toward polls comes as no surprise. As editor in chief of the Gallup Poll, Newport is, by many reckonings, the nation’s leading pollster. With Gallup doing national polling for CNN and USA Today, Newport is a frequent commentator on politics and public perceptions, and his “The Nation’s Pulse” column is a mainstay of the Gallup Poll Tuesday Briefing, which circulates nationally by e-mail every week. But, oddly enough, Newport claims that polling gets no respect, or at least not enough for his taste. The public mistrusts polls, he says, misunderstanding their methodology and their reliability, and fearing they influence public opinion more than they reflect it. Even politicians, who would never go into an election campaign without their trusty pollsters at their sides, hate to be called “poll-driven,” the information-age equivalent of craven and spineless. Even the lowliest officeholder wants to be thought a statesman. For that reason, many politicians stop paying attention to polls the minute they take office. And that, he says, is a mistake.

“Polls are simply a scientific method for measuring the collective opinion of all of the people,” says Newport, by phone from Gallup headquarters outside Princeton, NJ. “In a large society, like we have today, you cannot simply get a ‘sense’ of the people without using some kind of scientific tool. And the point is, there is great wisdom, in my opinion, in the collective views of an aggregate of individuals. Politicians should be proud of the fact that they are trying to understand the wisdom that’s embodied in the collective views of the people when they make decisions, rather than being ashamed of it.”

That collective wisdom may be hard to define, considering the depth of division in the American people today. But if anyone could find it, Newport could. So I called him up to talk about polling, politics, and the public mood. What follows is an edited transcript of our conversation.

CommonWealth: We’re right now in the middle of a hotly contested presidential election, so it feels as if we’re inundated with polls. But particularly when it gets to this point in a campaign, the polls and the media reporting on polls seem to be obsessed with the horse race question: Who’s going to win? And with tactical questions: Who’s putting across their message better than the other candidate? Are attack ads working or backfiring? That sort of thing. But that isn’t the kind of public opinion you think is getting short shrift in politics or the press. It is this whole matter of the “wisdom of the people” that is neglected. But given how divided the American public seems to be right now, at least with regard to the presidential election, what wisdom is there to be drawn from public opinion?

Newport: Well, that’s a couple of questions. First of all, I believe that horse race polling has its place. In fact, I just published a piece in Editor and Publisher, which goes out to all the editors of newspapers, arguing that in this election season they shouldn’t wring their hands so much. Horse race polling—that is, where the election stands and what impact events in the election are having on the way the public is viewing the candidates—is important and valuable information. If nothing else, the campaigns themselves are polling extensively, and that’s really driving their campaigns, and it can be argued the public needs access to the same information. If there are Swift Boat ads, and if there is a Republican convention and a Democratic convention, and when there are debates, the average American is quite interested in knowing the impact of them. I think Americans want[ed] to know in ’92 that Ross Perot was catching on. That’s important information for them to know. In 2003 in California, I point out in the book, the fact that horse race polling showed Schwarzenegger was actually moving ahead and was likely to win the recall election was important for voters to know ahead of time, because they got to figure out that, gee, this looks serious; we really may have an actor as governor. They got to know that ahead of time and I think that was important when it came time for them to vote. But with that said, yes, I think that in terms of guiding the direction of society forward, the broad scale societal direction and policies, it’s policy-related polling that is neglected to a large degree by our elected representatives.

CommonWealth: From the sort of polling that you’re doing at this point and in a context where the public seems to be deeply divided over the direction of the country, at least in terms of their choice of who they want to be president for the next four years, what can you tell me about the public mood going into this election? Not who people are going to vote for, but what’s on their minds?

Newport: Well, the mood is quite mixed. The question that we ask frequently, every month as a matter of fact, at Gallup is: Are you satisfied or dissatisfied with the way things are going in the US? And consistently throughout this year it’s been below 50 percent. So you have a majority of Americans who are dissatisfied. The overall mood is not ebullient. Americans are concerned and they do believe that we are in a time in the United States that is not nearly as positive as, say, the late ’90s, where we would consistently get that satisfaction level much above 50 percent. So we have a concerned American public. When we ask them about their concerns, like what is the most important problem facing the country, we come back first and foremost to the economy. We still have about 60 percent of Americans who say it’s not a good time to be looking for a quality job. It is our number one problem. Quite less than half of Americans are willing to rate the economy as good. A plurality, in fact, in some recent polling, has said that the economy is getting worse, not better. So we have a significant concern over the economy as our number one concern, and that’s despite the emphasis on international things. But I do believe the polling shows that secondary to those kinds of domestic concerns—which include, by the way, long-term anxiety about Medicare and retirement, as well as education—there is the continuing concern about terrorism and, on a more topical basis, we certainly have concern about the war in Iraq. All of those issues are kind of commingling in Americans’ consciousness as they go about their daily lives. That’s why we have over half who say they’re dissatisfied with the way things are going.

CommonWealth: Let’s flesh those concerns out a little bit, if we can. It’s true that the economy pops up in all the polls right at the top. That is people’s number one concern. How surprising is that at a point when, at least formally speaking, we’re two years out from the end of the recession?

Newport: Well, W.I. Thomas, a famous social psychologist, said many years ago, if you define the situation as real, the consequences are real. In polling, we’re dealing with people’s perceptions, not reality. We ran into that in 1992 when Republicans claimed the economy was getting much better but, at least up to the election, the public didn’t agree. They still saw it as a problem and they threw out Bush the elder. So we’re saying now, regardless of what economists tell us in terms of hard numbers or statistics, the average American out there still is not robustly optimistic about this economy. They still see problems, be it inflation concerns, with oil and gas, or be it the fact that although there may be jobs, they’re $7-an-hour jobs, not $20-an-hour jobs. These concerns are still there, and that’s what we measure in polling. But if perceptions are real, the consequences are real, in terms of people’s daily lives, and that’s why polling in this situation can be very, very important. Economic numbers to some degree don’t matter if the people still perceive it as a bad situation.

CommonWealth: Exactly. And that extends not only to the public as workers and consumers but also to investors. You regularly do a poll of investors and for them you’ve pinpointed the price of energy—gas and oil prices going up a good deal over the last year—as a blow to their optimism, but there is also the outsourcing of jobs and accounting irregularities in the wake of the Enron and other scandals. So there are a number of things that investors are worried about in the economy.

Newport: Yes, our monthly poll, the UBS Gallup Index of Investor Optimism, is quite important because it measures the views of investors, and in the stock market it’s the same thing as with the average American—it’s perceptions, not reality. It’s investors’ perceptions that drive the stock price, not the reality. Every CEO has had a situation where he believes his numbers are great but his stock still won’t go up. And vice versa. There are companies with bad numbers but the stock soars because perceptions are somehow that the company’s got a great future. So investor optimism is extremely important to measure, and we’re nowhere near the kind of optimism levels we had, say, in the late ’90s. Although it’s up a little from its nadir, its low point in the past year or two, investors are still quite skittish for the reasons we’ve been talking about. They’re worried about jobs. They’re worried about outsourcing. They’re worried about oil and gas. They’re worried about a lot of things.

CommonWealth: I also note that in one of your recent polls, among people who are employed, 28 percent are worried about their benefits being reduced. Is this a sign of anxiety around health care coverage?

Newport: Yes. That number may not be as wildly negative as one might think because there’s always going to be some residual concern. Even in boom years, some people are worried. But there’s no question, looking at our data, that people are concerned about health care coverage. There also is tremendous concern about being laid off not only because one no longer has a salary coming in, [but because] one loses health care coverage, and it’s extraordinarily expensive to try to fund that on one’s own. So we do find that although health care is not way up at the top when we ask what is the most important problem facing the country, when we ask other questions about it, that is a significant concern to Americans.

The electorate is a’hung jury’ on the issue of Iraq.

CommonWealth: Now, other than the economy, the war in Iraq is generally cited as the public’s top concern, with questions about terrorism and homeland security either close behind or mixed in with their thinking about Iraq. But what Americans are thinking about these issues is less clear to me. One of your August polls said that Americans had become less negative about the war in Iraq, with 49 percent saying that it was worth going to war and 48 percent saying it was not worth it—this being the first time that “not worth it” had dipped below 50 percent. At the same time, there was no consensus about what the country should do now in Iraq, whether to send in more troops or to withdraw. In fact, the majority was split between more middle-of-the-road options, either standing pat, keeping things pretty much as they are, or a partial withdrawal. What is it the American people want the American government to do in Iraq?

Newport: That’s a great question. One of the theses of my book is that our representatives should look to the collective wisdom of the people to help guide the direction of the country. At this moment in time, however, there is not a clear-cut direction coming from the people of the United States. The wisdom of the people is mixed at this point. We do not have a consensus of Americans, as is the case in some other situations historically and internationally, that says we should totally immediately withdraw from Iraq. In fact, I reviewed a number of questions and generally speaking, the majority of Americans say that the troops should stay there at least for the time being. We have split even on whether or not the war was worth going into to begin with, but by no means is there a consensus that that was a mistake. We have found, historically, a fairly good consensus that it is important to get other countries and nations involved in the war—that was there even before the war began, although there was support for President Bush’s decision to go to war as he went to war.

By the way, Arnold Schwarzenegger, in his speech at the Republican convention, said Bush went to war despite the fact that it was unpopular and against public opinion. He was wrong. In our polling in March before the war began, we had upwards of 60 percent of Americans who approved of Bush’s decision. Bush went to war with the majority of the public behind him, so Schwarzenegger was incorrect in that assertion. But today, this is an instance where leaders looking for guidance from the people find a hung jury. They find an American public that is split. In a way, both Bush and Kerry are kind of following the wisdom of the people in this situation. Both of them are advocating no immediate withdrawal. Kerry has advocated getting more allies involved and now more recently Bush has also advocated that as well. So at this point, it is a situation where the leaders, to some degree, are doing what the public would have them do.

CommonWealth: And what about the questions of homeland security, specifically? Your polls show that only one out of three Americans seems to have any worries about personally becoming the victim of terrorist attack, and that proportion has even been dropping steadily since the attacks of September 11. At the same time, a majority, 56 percent of the people, feel that the US war against terrorism is going well, but that majority has been declining over the past two years. What is it that the American public is looking for from the president, from their governors, from their mayors, in terms of homeland security?

Newport: Well, that’s fairly straightforward. The people are looking [for] from their government on homeland security what they look for from their police in their local communities, and that is to protect us from harm. I believe there’s a little less satisfaction with the war on terrorism because we have seen more instances internationally, not locally, of terrorist attacks, particularly in Iraq itself. We hear of terrorist actions in Russia and, of course, in Israel. So when you ask the American public how well the war on terrorism is going, we’re not finding any increase in optimism. There are acts of terrorism still going on around the world. But what they want their government to do, in particular, is try to protect them here locally. Liberals and Democrats have argued that the USA Patriot Act and other efforts to curb terrorism have gone too far, that they have encroached on civil liberties. But our polling, generally speaking, shows the American public is supportive of the Patriot Act.

CommonWealth: I can’t help but turn to one domestic policy issue that is an enduring one at this magazine: education. You annually perform the Gallup Phi Delta Kappa poll, which covers a range of educational issues. What strikes me, as I look at the results of that poll, is the divide between the general and the local. The public thinks education in America is seriously deficient—only 26 percent give grades of A or B to American schools overall—but they think better of their local schools, with 47 percent giving A or B grades. When you drill down further, parents think their local school merits an A or B at a rate of 61 percent, and when it comes to their own oldest child’s school, they give As and Bs at the level of 70 percent. In terms of public policy, what conclusions do you draw from this? What do you do with the knowledge that the public is disgusted with the state of the public schools generally but when it comes to their neighborhood schools, they’re perfectly content?

Newport: Well, a couple of points. First of all, we find that phenomenon—and it’s encouraging, actually—across a variety of dimensions. People are more negative when you ask them to rate the state of some institution of society nationally than they are about their own situation. To some degree, when you ask them to speculate about the state of something nationally, people reflect the more negative news they hear in the media. But locally, they’re actually muddling through their lives pretty well. In fact, I had mentioned earlier in this interview about satisfaction at the way things are going in the US being below 50 percent. When we ask Americans, “How satisfied are you with the way things are going in your personal life,” it’s up around 80 percent and hardly ever moves. So the good news is that Americans—

CommonWealth: We’re pretty happy campers after all.

Newport: Most of us are getting by okay. But when we ask them about things internationally or nationally they reflect more negatively, and that’s true for schools. It’s also true for health care. Most Americans, despite all the hoopla on worry about health care in the future, which I do believe Americans are very concerned about, at the moment the majority of Americans say, “I have adequate health care.” And we find that for education. The rate of satisfaction with one’s own schooling and one’s community or one’s kids is pretty good. Part of that is that people vote with their feet and find good schools for their kids. But finally, and this is the most important part of all, the key problem in education is that the majority are doing fine but minorities and those with very low incomes are not doing as well in terms of any outcome measures. So, to some degree Americans are being rational. They are saying schooling in general has problems. Why? It’s because minorities and poor people aren’t doing as well. The majority of people we interview on any poll are, in fact, white, middle-class and above middle class, and actually have pretty good schooling.

‘Americans are a charitable people.’

So, in a way, we’re getting a charitable response. It’s a positive, charitable response. Consistently, we find Americans are willing to give up their own money, forgo tax cuts, and do other things along those lines if it will help the disadvantaged in society. Americans are a very charitable people. So, in terms of education, you have majority white, middle-class people whose kids are doing all right in schools, who are still sensitive to the fact that there are those whose kids aren’t doing well. And they are, in fact, willing to do something about it. That’s what we find in the data. Now, whether or not the No Child Left Behind law is the right way to handle it is a different issue. Our polling shows that significant numbers of Americans don’t know anything about that. We don’t have good polling data from the general public on whether No Child Left Behind, which is so controversial, is an effective way to remedy these problems.

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CommonWealth: Isn’t it interesting that, regarding a law that has been so controversial and will continue to be controversial, certainly up through Election Day, Americans don’t, by and large, feel they know enough about it to have an opinion one way or the other?

Newport: Well, that’s where you use polling data effectively. Were I in the US Department of Education, I would commission significant research focusing on school administrators and teachers across the country and perhaps even school board members, so we can get the wisdom of these smaller groups of people who really do deal with NCLB on a day-to-day basis. Based on that information, that collective wisdom, we could make some decisions about what needs to be modified with No Child Left Behind. So, following the premise of my book, you could use scientific survey research to assemble what I think would be a pretty good indication of the direction we need to go. Otherwise, you’re flailing around, with Democrats trying to modify No Child Left Behind in some ways and the Bush administration getting its back up and saying we knew it would cause problems but that’s the price of progress. The heck with all that. Let’s get in there and go to the front lines and use research to find out what the wisdom is from these people who have to live with it. That’s how I would use research to move us ahead educationally. By the way, we just asked Americans, what’s the number one thing you would do to improve education nationally? Interestingly, nobody mentioned No Child Left Behind. A lot of the focus was on two elements, money and teachers. The average Joe and Jane American out there, when asked about improving K-to-12 education, said we need better teaching, better teachers, better pay for teachers, and, generally, better funding for schools. So that’s where the wisdom of the people comes down. Broadly speaking, that’s what they focus on.