America will awake from the Clinton presidency with a world-class hangover. And like the standard morning after, America will marvel at the many things it reportedly did the night before. It will, of course, deny that it ever approved of Clinton as president. But the record is there. And this is, after all, the same opinionated America that voted George Bush out of office 18 months after a record 92 percent approval rating.
There are two phenomena at work in Clinton’s high approval ratings. Neither means that America thinks Clinton is a good guy or the war for America’s morality is lost:
Phenomenon 1: The telecom-connected, IT-driven, Fed-managed, low-inflation U.S. economy has people at work. Pots and garages are full, and people are as content with life as they have been for a long time. For most of our history, politicians and the media have trained the American people to give politicians credit (or blame) for a strong (or weak) economy. So, on issue one: “Can we pay our bills?” Clinton gets a measure of credit, deserved or not.
But more importantly, Clinton gets a shrug. When people are content with life, they seldom care about things in Washington. And the demographic that “doesn’t care” about Clinton’s disgusting personal behavior is a subset thereof. Most Americans are not professional moralists and simply shrug off presidential sleaze as a minor sidebar in their lives. If unemployment were to tip up two points, Clinton’s approval rating would dive to the low 30s. It’s that simple. Why don’t the pundits say so? Because if they did, they’d be confessing that America doesn’t care, as a subset, about them either.
Phenomenon 2: Clinton’s approval ratings are simply a polling echo. As recently as a decade ago, opinion polls were used by the White House to monitor how it was doing with its governing agenda. But the Clinton White House has used opinion polls to set its agenda.
When Reagan wished the federal government could be managed more like corporate America, this was not what he had in mind. But this is, of course, exactly how corporate America manages, and this is how the Chairman and CEO of the federal government manages: He leads by survey research.
The Clinton White House has spent five times as much money on weekly and pulse polling as any White House in the modern era; up to $5 million a year in DNC money. And what the people say they want—as modulated by Oprah and the other sovereigns of vox-pop—Clinton gives them.
In the not-so-distant past, presidents of the United States focused policy-making on tax reform, trade, civil rights, and the Cold War. These days the power of the presidency is committed to making Viagra a medical right, to discovering safer child safety seats, and to beating up on big tobacco. To be fair, there have been other initiatives not preapproved and sanctioned by polls: peace between Palestinians and Israelis, peace in Northern Ireland; standing tall against Serbia and China, and, lest we forget, wagging the dog.
The Clinton State of the Union addresses have been little more than cut-and-pasted scraps from White House opinion polls. This is what leadership has become. You can blame it on the legacy of Dick Morris’s advice—low-risk leadership by opinion poll.
Polls offer quantitative security and only occasionally qualitative creativity. Polls do the thinking for you. Polls eliminate risk and provide alibis. The marketing research that steers corporate America is now steering presidential America.
Face it, if a company or a president gives you everything you think you care about in a 90-second reflection—with prompted responses during a telephone survey between helpings at dinner—wouldn’t you be inclined to give positive reviews when the pollster calls back?
Again, here is how the polling echos happen: Aggregated America is keen on Viagra. The president comes out for Viagra. And America says, with paychecks and a shrug, “We’re in synch!” Hence, the president is doing a good job.
So what’s wrong with this? Democracy appears to be at work. Two things are wrong:
1. Creativity and innovation are smothered by what the research says.
2. The polling and research business is filled with mediocrity, shortcuts, and, increasingly, bad research.
Are You Still Reading?
Now, at about five minutes into this piece, magazine readership surveys say that I am at risk of losing you as a reader if I don’t change the tempo. So I am quickly shifting to U.S.A Today format. Research says that I am now 65 percent more likely to get you to finish this piece. Research also suggests that if you finish this piece and find it compelling, you have a two percent probability of writing a letter to the editor, which, pro or con, is good for me.
Seven Points about the Dark Side of Polling
1. National polls are cheap. Anyone can buy a question, on a “national omnibus survey,” It’s like buying a seat on a bus, for about $1,000. The answers to your question can be projected to a national audience, and they will come complete with demographic break outs, regional weighting, and a nice stack of numbers and “cross tabulations”—enough thump value to make you look and feel very smart and confident. For anyone groping for decision-making tools, survey research is very handy. No paying $1,000 to know with a fair amount of certainty what America feels about (go ahead, fill in the blank) __________________ is a pretty good deal. Hence, survey research has become very, very popular.
2. Polls are everywhere. With nationally projectable survey research coming cheap and corporate managers liking security blankets, you’d be right to think that polling is everywhere. Sitcom producers, potato-chip packagers, car makers, labor unions, newspaper cartoon syndicates, and soap sellers are all lined up with President Clinton to deliver market leadership, but they must first know where people want to be led.
Why do cars all look the same? Why are sitcoms indistinguishable from one another? Because all are the product of polling, and all the polls ask the same questions of the same targeted audiences, and all fetch the same response. Marketers are merely doing what the research tells them to do. I proposed an idea for a cartoon strip to some syndicates a few years ago. I was told by a friend in a syndicate that there was no market for a center-right Doonesbury, but, “could you work something up on stock cars? Our research is telling us stock car racing is big and getting bigger. We would like to do a stock car strip.” I passed. I spoke to him again recently. Indeed, he had sold a stock car strip to 350 papers whose editors no doubt had done research too.
Why was Volkswagen’s retro Beetle a huge hit? It’s genesis was not the product of a poll. It broke from the pack. Politicians and marketers all claim to be break out material, but when it comes to plotting new directions, risk aversion and “the research” always seem to win.
3. There is big money in polling. Everybody is commissioning research, hence, business is booming for researchers. Indeed, the first thing pitched by an advertising agency, public relations firm, or political consulting group is opinion research. There are big profit margins in opinion research.
During the “much-discussed” Right-to-Life PR fizzle sponsored by the Catholic bishops in the early 1990s, $2 million was spent on opinion research, focus groups, and survey research. They were desperately mining for a message strategy that would win supporters without otherwise giving offense. The research represented about 40 percent of the entire campaign budget, but they learned nothing new. With dollars like that in play, growth in the business has been huge.
You can stipulate the science of survey research these days. It is there, it is reliable, and it is easily replicable; i.e. mass-produced to accommodate growth. But the art of polling cannot be mass-produced. The inference and intuition of word choice in a survey cannot be learned in graduate school. That can only be learned from on-the-job training, and there is precious little art stretched between the swarm of new companies.
4. With huge growth, there is a great deal of mediocre research being sold. Managing quality is always an institutional challenge in times of growth and expansion. The research industry is no exception and is doing a poor job of policing itself. It all boils down to this dirty little secret: There are very few job skills required to do opinion research. A green, liberal arts graduate can learn all that is necessary to crank out polls of Gallupesque appearance in a two-week internship. This has several implications.
First, if you ever set out to do a research project, and you meet with a senior vice president of a major national firm to discuss the business, you are likely to be impressed with the senior vice president’s academic demeanor, understanding of your interests, and strong presentation skills. But make sure you keep a Polaroid. If you end up hiring the firm, you will never see this person again, barring the remote chance he/she will present the findings to your board. The questionnaire, the discussion guide, the samples, the extrapolations, the written report will all be produced by an “associate”—a green, liberal arts graduate, fresh from an internship.
But don’t worry too much. This associate will be producing your custom-designed survey after adapting from decades of boilerplate and working the “search and replace” key on his computer ragged.
You will surely get a statistically valid product. The problem is, you may not get anything useful. If the research questions and methodologies are not creative, intellectually aggressive, and compelling, the results won’t be, either. This is the problem with big research firms.
Here is the problem with small boutique research firms: Anybody can hang out a research shingle. Indeed, that’s exactly what I did. My genesis as an opinion researcher followed repeated dissatisfaction with the opinion research I was commissioning. I was fed boiler-plate once too often, and too many times a part-time graduate student droned through a focus group discussion guide while I agonized behind the glass.
As thousands have discovered, it is easy to become an opinion researcher. Just follow a standard methodology, whip up a little word-craft, and market yourself as providing attentive client service (which the prospective client won’t get from the big firm after the business is secured). Also, remember, it’s cheap to do a national survey question that provides a lot of room to mark up your services.
5. It is getting harder to do good (honest) opinion research. Professional pollsters don’t like to talk about this. But the telephone answering machine is making it hard for pollsters to get honest, stratified samples.
Guess what types of people—relative to a total, broad- based sample—screen their calls because they really don’t like to be bothered during dinner with telemarketing calls (which an opinion survey is for the first 15 seconds)? The answer: people who have worked hard all day, care about the sanctity of the dinner hour, and have sufficient discretionary income to buy (and intelligence to install) a telephone answering machine.
Does this phenomenon make it harder to reach upper-income, more highly educated people to create balanced surveys? Yes, absolutely. Do minimum-wage telemarketers, who “burn” through calling lists, occasionally fudge the demographic information provided them in order to hit distribution requirements for a balanced survey, thereby skewing results? Perish the thought! This is research!
It’s also harder to get upper-income professionals to attend focus groups. A focus group is a small discussion group of perhaps a dozen people, for which participants are screened in advanced to represent the general views of a group. The point is not to do a scientific sample but to probe for range and conviction of opinions on issues. This is qualitative, not quantitative, research. And typically participants are paid to participate, often up to a $100 for a 90-minute session. But $100 these days is not much of an inducement for busy professionals, and it is very hard to get them in a room and get their views.
A successful focus group is largely, a function of the technique and experience of the discussion leader. But the results of any group are suspect if the right people aren’t in the room.
Regrettably, far too many research firms use “focus groupies”—people who fit hard-to-reach demographic patterns and are routinely available to come to focus groups to provide opinions—when random selection fails to muster a quorum. Recall, focus group participants are paid.
Who knows how many message strategies have been built around the semiprofessional views of a few John and Mary Does in focus group epicenters such as Indianapolis, Orlando, Columbus, Dallas, or Denver? And we think pundits steer popular opinion?
6. Of course you can shape a response by the way you write a question! You know this already, but here is an example from my sample bag. A few years ago, I was commissioned to help NASA think about telling a better story about itself and the need for exploring space. I reviewed previous opinion research and discovered that NASA had been relying heavily upon very positive data from an annual tracking survey that asked the following question: Do you support continued manned exploration of space?
National response: Overwhelmingly yes, yes, yes. More than 90 percent had always said “yes.” There was some turbulence in the post-Challenger disaster years, but it was a good question, asked by a top research firm, and a statistically valid response that indicated that America was very supportive of manned exploration of space… that I did not believe was the least bit relevant.
I commissioned my own research and discovered two interesting data points: First, more than 20 percent of the American people believe America has landed a man on Mars. (Not true.) Second, I asked this question: If you were Congress, and you had $100 to divide between spending on education, health care, better roads and bridges, and manned exploration of space (items rotated), how much would you spend on manned exploration of space? NASA was shocked to learn that most Americans would barely provide them cab fare home, let alone a new generation of rockets.
7. As a nation, we can be dumb; or we can focus on things other than what pollsters are. The American people really aren’t very smart about many things, and from time to time we have a poll that tells us that. The National Geographic Society from occasionally commissions a national Geography IQ test—and as a nation we flunk. The National Geographic Society suggests we are pretty stupid because it has a mission to make us smarter—and sell more subscriptions or videos while it is at it.
But politicians are loath to tell us we’re wrong about issues as revealed in surveys even when we as a nation can be remarkably incorrect. It is risky, but sometimes profitable, to go against the research. Either that, or Clinton really is on to something.