All around the world, most heads-of-state claim that majorities of their people approve of their policies and actions. Even dictators seek to legitimize their power based on similar claims. But hold on. Their opponents also claim that the people are with them. Who is right, the leaders in power or their opponents? Often, it turns out, neither. Large majorities of the general population worldwide have views different from their leaders both those in power and those out of power. This leads to enormous disconnects between the leaders and the led, disconnects not alleviated as regime follows regime – even in democracies.
For example, polls conducted by a Canadian firm, Environics International, in twenty countries around the world over the last five years have shown repeatedly that people everywhere want better education, health care and environmental protection. Yet typically governments spend more on the military and large projects of dubious value to ordinary people but financially valuable to elites and special interests.
How do we know this? Elections give us occasional insights, but not nearly enough reliable information on what is going on. Some elections are fraudulent. They may produce large miscounts in amounts that can never be accurately determined. During the long count coverage of the 2000 presidential election in Florida the curtains parted briefly to reveal with startling clarity the ugly sight of both parties agonizingly grasping for victory with no regard for the integrity of the voting process at the core of democracy and no attention to the will of the people. That happened in the US, which holds itself up as a model democracy!
There is only one practical way to find out what people want for governance that can produce reliability, credibility, and accuracy. That way is careful, high quality, scientific, random sample polling. Today in over 60 countries there are professional pollsters who are capable of conducting such polls. Why are their findings not better known?
One reason is that many polls are never made public -- for example, those polls that leaders frequently commission to find out what to say in order to solidify their support or, in democracies, to get elected. Secondly, a properly conducted, careful poll is labor-intensive -- with 500 to 1500 interviews, too expensive for most purposes. Thirdly, polling is a competitive industry. Professional, commercial pollsters in all countries reflect the biases of their sponsors just to stay in business. Furthermore, the mainstream news media, press, TV and radio conduct, syndicate, and regurgitate their own poll findings. The content of these polls reflect the biases of their owners, advertisers, and the political leaders in countries where they distribute or broadcast. This polling barrage upstages findings from even the highest quality, most authoritative non-commercial polls that show the disconnect between leaders and public. This is especially true in the US, with its commercial "sound bite" news coverage.
The most serious obstacle to such public-interest poll findings being heard in the US public-debate is simply grossly inadequate distribution. The high profile mainstream press (Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, National Journal, New York Times, etc.) in their political news articles, edit out or water down the occasional poll findings that do not fit their preconceptions. Their views are buttressed by their in-house pollsters, widely copied by news services and picked up by TV news channels. Their political reporters and pollsters learn the accepted limits of their organizations preconceptions and keep clear of them. The major TV networks further water down poll findings by sound-bite contractions and omissions. News media moguls, producers, anchors, editors, etc., develop complex, largely hidden biases that seem immune to contrary information in the trickle of public-interest poll results that they are exposed to.
Moguls and producers have additional ongoing biases that arise directly from bottom-line considerations. Mainstream media organizations get over half of their revenues from advertising. The total annual US media advertising bill is a growing $280 billion, an enormous sum, 4% of GDP, with about as much economic clout as, for example, the defense budget. Furthermore, quite a bit of news-media content comes from public-relations submissions that are also paid for by corporate advertisers. An advertiser prefers to have its placements in congenial surroundings.
Large, powerful corporate advertisers may sometimes demand that a media corporation withdraw or soften a negative story. Occasionally that seems outrageous even to the mainstream news media, but still may succeed in obtaining the withdrawal or softening. This sometimes leads to embarrassing stories in competitors' outlets. In these circumstances the public gets a brief glimpse of the conflict of interests between news media and advertisers. These are rare exceptions. The general rule is that the advertiser is content if the whole thrust of the publication or of the TV news program does not diminish the impact it expects from its advertising campaigns.
The situation is not entirely hopeless. Sometimes commercial pollsters do high quality polls in the public interest. A few non-profit pollsters do so too -- unfortunately with generally limited access to mass media. Public-interest polling often comes up with remarkably different results than those of the commercial firms such as Roper, Harris, Yankelovich, and, best known around the world, Gallup. For example, over a decade ago before the world knew of the Internet or heard of globalization, I and my colleagues at Americans Talk Issues (ATI) Foundation, conducted high quality surveys in the US that first characterized globalization as these seven developments:
Pollution crossing international borders;
Global arms sales and arming of third world countries;
Multinationals manufacturing in countries with cheap labor and weak environmental laws;
Instant 24-hour trading of stocks, bonds, and currencies around the world;
Designing, manufacturing, and marketing a global product in many countries;
Workers all over the world going to other countries to work;
Global news, advertising, entertainment, and information programs and software.
We found that the US public, back in 1991 may not have yet heard the word “globalization”, but were well aware of these seven developments. When asked in random order about regulating them by international agreements, the top ranking: international pollution, produced a whopping 90% in favor of "strict or moderate" regulation. The remaining 10% were those who favored "mild regulation" or "not seeking new international agreements" and also included those who did not know or refused to answer. Asked the same way, the next five drew majority support for "strict or moderate" regulation: question 2 by 83%, 3 by 73%, 4 by 66%, 5 by 64%, 6 by 52%. The only development that had less than majority support was the seventh, supported by 34% of the public. A minority for regulating globalized mass media is not surprising in view of the devotion to "freedom of speech" in the US.
The well-educated were more favorable and familiar with these aspects of globalization and more aware of the opportunities out there for them. The less-well-educated knew back then that they would be the ones more vulnerable to the seven developments. They were proved right. Many studies in the following years have shown the uneven impacts of globalization on the poor, the uneducated, or those in regions bypassed by global financial and electronic networks.
Meanwhile what were US leaders thinking about globalization during this decade? Propelled by the interests of large corporations and western heads-of-state, globalization was thought of as an economic issue. Economists were tapped to give their views. Economists have virtually no understanding of the relevance of the vast fields of environmental and societal/cultural factors. They consider in their writings or public appearances the motivations of anyone, whether real persons or persons under the law (corporations), to be narrow self-interest (mostly monetary interests, i.e., profit maximizing). They ignore or dismiss exogenous environmental and social impacts. Fed a steady diet of economists' views over the years, political leaders and mainstream media, particularly talk show pundits and columnists, spoke of globalization only as an economic problem, if they mentioned it at all.
Throughout the '90s a majority of the US public, favoring regulation of globalization, found no political support for their ideas and so were forced into mass movements, such as the many thousands whose leaders attended the Porto Alegre, Brazil, World Social Forums in 2001 and 2002.
Further ATI surveys, during the 90's, showed both a growing understanding of globalization by the US public and support for pragmatic approaches to address the bad news the public saw both in globalization and unfettered world trade. One March '93 poll question was formulated this way:
"Trade agreements are crafted by economists who focus on economic aspects. The economists get very little input from other scientific advisors, like anthropologists, social scientists, and ecologists who often do see ways to protect a country’s social institutions, culture, economy, and environment. Do you think that experts in other social and physical sciences should be involved in the development of trade agreements, or should the agreements be designed by economists alone, and not be complicated by competing viewpoints?"
A huge 71% responded that other experts should be involved, while only 23% said economists should design agreements alone.
We then asked about support of two different viewpoints in random order.
A solid 65% agreed with this civil society, NGO, view: "Some people say that a combination of economists and experts from social and physical sciences would produce trade agreements more acceptable to everyone. The amount of time spent as these professionals learn to work together would be wisely invested, as they are sure to be more successful than the current system of economists working alone. Reaching agreements using only the limited ideas of economists will mean continuing delays in treaty approval, as well as harmful social and environmental impacts."
Only 26% agreed with this elitist view: "Other people say introducing non-economic considerations will make these already complicated negotiations hopelessly more complicated, so that no agreements will be reached for an even longer time than it would take for the economists to put together satisfactory agreements. With every year that it takes to reach satisfactory agreements, each country’s economy will suffer from the lost opportunities for expanded trade, jobs, and a better material standard of living."
The WTO, which only emerged from GATT in 1995, was built on the elitists’ narrow views. It took the NGO protests of Seattle, London, Prague and Genoa to force “free trade” ideologues to pay attention to human rights, labor, and environmental issues. In our “debate” format poll, support for the original question on broadening trade agreements remained unshaken.
ATI's globalization surveys in the 90's illustrate important characteristics of public-interest polling: resistance to counter-arguments, internal consistency, and persistence over time. More generally, many years of in-depth polling by ATI and its teams of top pollsters and issue experts found the legislation and policy choices most supported by Americans to be stable, consistent, pragmatic, principled, and startlingly at odds with the views of national leaders. That important result requires presenting here the key techniques in question design and wording used by high quality public-interest polling to uncover and make understandable the reasonable desires for governance by the people.
Questions must be asked both open-ended and with batteries offering a wide range of alternative choices. Questions on proposed or current policy must be asked in several different ways to test the effects of wording variations and survey design features. Split sample techniques, batteries repeated over time, and the debate format also must be judiciously used in a fair, balanced, and accurate fashion in order to test versions of policies to find those most supported. There can be no clues in the question wording that suggest bias or imbalance in the polling teams responsible for the surveys.
Public-interest polling sponsors must be motivated to uncover and confirm what the public itself wants for governance by offering a wide range of clear and distinct choices, and in particular
being careful not to lead the witness (cue the respondent),
noting and properly allowing for effects of question frames, lead-ins and small (or not so small) changes in the meaning of specific policy choices,
neither talking down to respondents nor using language that is confusing, ambiguous, or counter-factual,
testing and re-testing findings with new samples.
By these methods, consensus positions (67%+ support, often 80-90%) can be uncovered and confirmed by the public-interest pollster and independently reconfirmed by other pollsters. To confirm that at least a majority support a specific consensus position, a random sample size as small as 25 is sufficient. Such a small sample for a single question could be tested properly by any professional pollster to verify original findings for less than $50 total out-of-pocket cost [See Locating Consensus for Democracy, p. 330].
Confronted repeatedly with credible and substantial evidence of these disconnects on issue after issue, presidents and virtually all of congress and the mainstream media – just turn away. Why?
It starts on the campaign trail, where everything is subordinated to the big contest, winning election. Candidates pay for (and look at) polls to help them find the style and language to best reach their goal. Typically they play up their strengths and ignore or dismiss their weaknesses. An amazing development, not admitted publicly a few years ago but very clear to the public now, is this. What candidates want to do if elected is very simple -- to support their most valued financial backers. [Years before candidates openly admitted that money buys votes, the political system made the practice work easily, almost irresistibly, for both elected officials and corporations, as explained in Locating Consensus for Democracy, pp. 145-146.]
Neither candidates nor media will pay for, or commission, a different kind of poll, one that explores and confirms what the people, the general public, want most. When candidate after candidate says, “We do not want government by polling,” as both Bob Dole and Bill Clinton said in their 1996 campaigns, they are acknowledging that they seek self-serving “what-should-I-say” polls, not public-interest “what-do-I-do” polls. They do not want to know that the reasonable preferences of supermajorities (67%+) of Americans differ from the desires of well-heeled special interests that officials across the political spectrum routinely enact into law.
Fred Steeper, was the ATI Republican pollster in over 30 polls from 1987 to 2000. He has also been the pollster for Presidents George Bush, Sr., and George W. Bush, both during their campaigns and their presidencies. He made clear to me that W, throughout his campaign and presidency, has wanted only “what-should-I-say” polls. Through his commitments to financial backers, W has no use for “what-do-I-do” polls.
One of W’s strong points is that he always seems to know what he wants to do. The public respects that kind of consistency, but inconsistencies creep in that are not noticed immediately. For example, W started his administration wanting to do things, such as being “humble” in international affairs (meaning he will not pay much attention to other countries’ problems) and to keep out of “nation-building”. But events, many of his own making, have led him to change his ideas and his policies. Now he has little international humility and, more than any other president since World War II, is into “nation-building”. He is likely to flip again.
Fred Steeper is smart, humble, and great as a team player, designer of polls, analyzer of results and presenter of findings. Most important, he is as honest as the day is long. Good reasons why he is liked by me, apparently also by W, and has remained a pollster of choice by both of us through some difficult times. Steeper knows that he cannot interest W in public-interest “what-do-I-do” polls. He also knows that after conducting a lot of “what-should-I-say” polls on an issue, if you think about what all of the different but related findings mean, you can know a lot about what the public wants, by “connecting the dots” [Steeper’s own words], a metaphorical phrase borrowed from the children’s game, where you connect in numerical order the dots of a puzzle to find the trace of an elephant or a giraffe. Still, when making a presentation to W and his top aides on recent poll results, Steeper cannot call attention to any "connect-the-dots" he has uncovered, because it would be tantamount to saying, “You smart people are really stupid. You do not understand the public. Look at what the public really wants”, at which point he would be shown the door and probably lose many of his other Republican clients as well.
In her NY Times column on April 3, 2002, Maureen Dowd explained that during 2001 polling costing almost a million dollars was accepted by W, who ridicules leaders [read Clinton/Gore] who need to run polls to decide how to lead. W's polling is very secret and of course never mentioned, while his pollster, “Fred Steeper, is kept in a secure location – the very distant background”.
The relationship of Stanley Greenberg and Clinton's later pollsters, Dick Morris and Mark Penn, and the key roles of Morris and Penn in the successful campaigns of Bill Clinton and Al Gore in 1996 and Hillary Clinton in 2000 and the unsuccessful role of Greenberg in the Gore campaign in 2000 were described by John F. Harris, Post staff reporter, in the National Weekly Edition of the Washington Post, Jan. 8-14, 2001, pp. 9-10. Morris and Penn nudged their candidates away from "what-should-I-say" polls toward "what-do-I-do" polls, although neither Penn, Morris, nor reporter Harris seem to understand those distinctions. The whole story can be found on 2.3."
Would a competent and attractive candidate who chose to base his/her campaign on public-interest “what-do-I-do” polls walk off with the big prize? Not necessarily, as we can see from a couple of well-known examples. If ever a presidential candidate had clear and popular positions on major issues, it was Ralph Nader in the 2000 campaign. Nader has immense knowledge of the bad practices of corporations, the need for environmental protection, and waste and corruption in government. His campaign consisted of making those evils known.
Nader had major weaknesses in areas beyond and outside of his policy positions. If I, a public-interest polling maven, were advising Nader on how to frame his 2000 campaign to rise above the single digit support level, I would have recommended to Ralph (whom I don't know personally, so I apologize if this seems presumptuous):
(1) Make sure from good surveys that the public knows you are expert in corporate and environmental irresponsibility and waste and corruption in government.
(2) Most of your energy, resources, and time should focus on explaining, clearly and consistently who you are and how you would be effective in the White House. Frankly most people, including me, have trouble visualizing you being President. Making a good speech, yes. With a hostile Congress and a Republican leaning court system, how would you get a law of your choosing passed? And if you did, how would you get public support and compliance that could stand up against the clout of the corporations? What in your background, personality, or character prepares you to handle the large range of difficult situations that will reach your desk? You would have had to address these questions directly honestly and compellingly to be effective in raising your ratings. I don’t know if you could do it. If you could, you would have risen rapidly into the double-digit support column, which was your basic intention for yourself and for the Green Party.
Al Gore’s deficiency was somewhat similar. He kept changing who he was. If he was “Mr. Environment”, how come he and Bill Clinton achieved so little improvement in environmental policy in 8 years? Was he a Washington insider or a good old boy from Tennessee? Did he take an easy job in the military during the Vietnam war or was he a patriot performing well the job assigned? What did his changing appearance, clothes and facial hair, mean about who he was?
W, much less knowledgeable about many issues and less articulate, could say yes he had been a heavy drinker and be absolved because it explained who he was both then and now. He said, “When I was young and foolish, I did foolish things”, implying now, older and wiser, "no more foolish things".
I conclude this article with a little-known, but important fact about political polling. Over 90% of polling is not about politics, elections, or governance. It is corporate market research: What kind of a car will you buy? How can we make your dog happier with our dog chow?
Corporate polls never surface publicly, are little known, and bear fruit in advertising that pushes the developed world into extreme consumerism and overwhelms the cultures of the developing world. The spillover from massive market research dwarfs the trickle of political polling. This leaves pollsters largely unaware of the damage they cause by helping to sell voters on candidates the way they help corporations sell soap. Polling becomes politics in disguise.
>>> #2.7 List of ATI Surveys