Printer Friendly Page The Public's Interest Re-Emerges ~ #9


Printer Friendly Page The Public's Interest Re-Emerges ~ #9

The Public's Interest Re-Emerges ~ #9

By Alan F. Kay, PhD
2002, (fair use with attribution and copy to authors)
Sep. 16, 2002

High quality, random sample polling, when used to give the people of the world a collective voice is known as public-interest polling. Polling in the public-interest is important because it is necessary, but not sufficient, to make democracy work in practice. Democracy, essential for the progress of humanity, continues to be frustrated by typical political leaders who pursue narrow, self-serving agendas and rely on narrow self-serving polls, not publicly released.

Scientific polling started when George Gallup, Sr. predicted with startling accuracy the 1936 re-election of Franklin Delano Roosevelt (FDR). Other highly regarded polls showed FDR losing to the Republican candidate, Alf Landon. Gallup developed a random sample method based on sampling theory, well known to statisticians and, remarkably, the only application of scientific theory in all of so-called "political science".

The story that spans the era of scientific polling links FDR to current President George W. Bush. It arose in part from polling data comparing public support for FDR prior to and after the attack on Pearl Harbor with support for George W Bush before and after the events of Sept 11th. No other events of modern times can be compared with either of these two, but they can be compared with each other. The eras were very different. So were many aspects of the events themselves. One of the similarities, not previously noticed, is that public support levels and trends over time, for the two leaders prove to be uncannily similar. Another similarity is that the early pollsters, like Gallup and Roper, did surveys that explored the public's interest, while only in the last few years has the importance of public-interest polling started to be realized. Five years ago, one of George Gallup Sr.'s associates back in the '60s, Winston (Wink) Franklin, wrote "Gallup was a true believer in public-interest polling and would be appalled if he could see how opinion polling is used today". The data in this story confirms Wink's viewpoint.

Gallup's success in predicting the re-election of FDR in 1936 opened the modern era of polling, which soon discredited "straw" or self-selected polls that had been around since the 19th century. In the latter half of the 20th century the world has slowly learned that each new major broadcast capable technology, such as television or the Internet, at first seems to promise to enlarge enormously the reach of the collective voice of the people. Instead moneyed special interests, particularly through corporate advertising, gradually overtake vox populi.

High quality polling is not cheap and followed a similar pattern. Polling is now an industry dominated by commercial pollsters, including today's huge Gallup and Roper organizations, catering to moneyed special interests. A tide of high priced pollsters, campaign managers, political advisors, pundits and media overwhelmed the earlier political landscape.

Bush's job approval rating by the public before 9/11 hovered in the range 55% to 62% for the eight prior months of his presidency. Over many years my colleagues and I conducted public interest polls examining why and when the U.S. public favors the use of force. An unexpected attack on the U.S. homeland our data showed would produce nearly unanimous support for action against the perpetrators. In the case of 9/11 the required action had to be a global effort to track down and bring to justice those responsible.

Immediately after 9/11 Bush's ratings shot up. Within a few weeks Bush had made clear he was pursuing a course very close to what most people wanted. His rating peaked at 90%. For the year thereafter it remained high, but slowly drifted down, crossing 66% August 2002.

Bush's high ratings enabled him to get from Congress almost whatever he wanted. High presidential approval ratings in war-time also squelch alternatives to the president's domestic legislative and regulatory initiatives. Declaring war gave Bush an opportunity to push his domestic agenda successfully.

How do FDR's approval ratings compare with Bush's? In his second term, well before the start of WW II in Europe, FDR's approval ratings are as follows:

Roper/Fortune: May 1938, 55%;

Gallup: 1937: Nov., 63%; 1938: May, 54%;  July, 52%;   Sep., 52%.

An important part of this story is the opportunity for discovery that drove the initiators of the era of scientific polling. Polling was so new that experimenting and learning from survey to survey occurred at every opportunity. Tests on the effects of different question wordings were routine. Gallup and Roper found that many small changes in wording and formatting made almost no difference in the responses to poll questions, but some did. Here is an example that is important for our Bush/FDR comparison. Before Sept. 1938 Gallup's wording of the rating question was crude, "Are you for or against Roosevelt today?" After Sep. 1938, Gallup switched to what was proving to be a more standard "approve/ disapprove" wording that from Nov. 1938 thru July 1940 produced approval for FDR in a narrow 56%-64% band. Dips down to 52% no longer occurred. Bush's approval band, 55%-62%, before 9/11was virtually the same as Roosevelt's 56%-64% before 12/7/41 for similar question wording.

After Dec. 7th, 1941, it was war time. Gallup ran surveys once or twice a month. Roper specialized in questions on approval of Roosevelt's attitude toward specific issues and legislation. Looking closely at the evolution of their question design and wording, it is clear that both were seeking reliability and consistency of responses with reasonable concern with the fairness, balance, and accuracy of their findings.

The early pollsters felt free to make occasional word substitutions to create new questions. For example, along with the standard "Do you approve or disapprove today of Roosevelt as President", in March 1940, Gallup asked, "Do you approve or disapprove of the way Mrs. Roosevelt has conducted herself as First Lady?" Eleanor received a 68% approval rating, 8 points higher than Franklin's 60%. The "First Lady" question had not been asked before and was not asked again. Today commercial pollsters would consider such questions irrelevant for their purposes, which are to tailor question wording and formatting to maximize public support for the policies that best satisfy their client's financial backers.

For the first year of the war, Gallup surveys showed support for the way FDR was handling his job, as follows: Jan. '42 over 85% approval, slowly dropping as follows: Feb., 82%; Mar.-May, 80%; June-Aug., 77%; Sep.-Nov., 72%. -- very similar to the high but dropping off ratings George Bush received in the year since 9/11.

After 12/7/41, approval for FDR's handling of domestic issues, like his overall rating, initially very high, slowly dropped off. It is amazing that the founder of random sample polling asked this question with a phrase (see italics) that is still sometimes used today.

Gallup: "Do you approve/disapprove of President Roosevelt's policies here at home?
Jan. '42, 77%; Feb. '42, 73%; June '42, 71%.

Pushing the analogy to its limit, this data from six-decade old archives suggests that for at least six months after 9/11 Bush would be successful with both international and domestic initiatives and that was correct.

On the other hand, considering specific issues and legislation, whether it was early pollsters questioning FDR's support or current pollsters questioning Bush's support, results vary widely from one issue to the next, sometimes favorable and sometimes unfavorable.

What can be done with these findings? In the last year the obvious and unique parallel between the 9/11/01 and 12/7/41 attacks was noted by many people, but did anyone think to look into polling databases during the year to get an insight into how Bush's ratings might unfold? To my knowledge, no.

Having written about the stability and persistence of public-interest poll findings, still I too was surprised to find both the size and trends in public support for both the president's domestic and international policies would be so consistent over a 60 year period. Though relatively few there are still enough public-interest polls conducted now to be compared with those few of 60 years ago, demonstrating an uncanny similarity between the old and new. The stability of public opinion when unusual conditions repeat themselves is worth examining and may continue to prove awesome.



>>> 2.5  The Polling Critic

Table of Contents

Return to Top