by David Reavill
It was an expression that we used to hear often in this country. Politicians would put their thumbs in their suspenders, lean back and begin their speeches with the meme, “I put my faith in the American People.” It was a way for them to say that they were a “servant of those who elected them,” ever aware that they could be thrown out of office at the next election. It was a simple way of saying that, in America, power derived from the people, and elected officials’ chief duty was to serve the wishes of the country’s citizens.
Last week, President Joe Biden announced that he was running for reelection. It followed Donald Trump’s announcement that he would be Biden’s chief opponent, at least at this point in the campaign. This marks the beginning of Washington’s four-year polling cycle—when opinion polls of all stripes and colors try to predict who will win the Presidency. Polling is a fascinating process, not at all what we think it is.
Ninety-Three, a young Ph.D. from Iowa, began what is now the most closely watched measure of Presidential Elections. His name was George Gallup, and his famous “Gallup Poll” became the gold standard for measuring public opinion. Just one year after starting his company, Gallup was able to predict the victory of Franklin Roosevelt over Alfred Landon for the Presidency. It was a complete shock to the Washington establishment and went counter to every other prediction on the race.
You see, Gallup had used objective, statistically accurate measures of public opinion and had a better picture of the mood and sentiment of the American People. Others in Washington were merely predicting based on unreliable hunches and their feelings about how people would vote.
Gallup’s reputation was set. From then on, the Gallup Poll was acknowledged as the premier measure of elections. You see, Gallup decided at the very beginning of the firm that the Gallup Poll would remain scrupulously objective. They would never accept sponsorship from any politician, whether Democrat or Republican. And although he could have been more profitable, he understood how easy it was to become swayed by sponsors.
After Gallup’s success in 1936, his firm ruled the world of opinion polling for the rest of his life. George Gallup died in 1984.
While he lived, many felt we had reached the pinnacle of measuring public attitudes and wishes. Our representatives in Washington could call up the latest Gallup Poll to see how their constituents wanted them to vote on a given issue. We were the closest the country ever came to a pure democracy.
In the years after George Gallup died, the polling world underwent a dramatic change. Although a few polling firms still held to Gallup’s objective, purely by the numbers approach to measuring public opinion, the real power and money were on the other side. It was now the politicians, Democrats, and Republicans, who had become the real power in polling.
The epitome of this new kind of pollster was Stanley Greenberg, who emerged as Bill Clinton’s personal polling company. But Greenberg’s services to the future President and his Political Party went far beyond Gallup’s methods. In contrast, Gallup was a collector of data, someone who measured opinion. Greenberg’s role was to shape opinion. Greenberg would work with Clinton throughout his two terms in office. And Greenberg would become famous for his “focus groups.” It was a method that several of the more advanced marketing firms in the countries used to design an ad campaign.
In a Focus Group, a select group of people representing specific demographics is brought together to react to various “pitches” to sell different products. In Greenberg’s case, the “product” was Clinton for President and, later, the multiple projects and proposals the new President would advocate.
It was the perfect all-in-one package. First, use focus groups to refine any new policy’s ideal title and message. Then use opinion polling to measure how things are going. Greenberg was a smashing success for Clinton; elected twice, the President was able to tailor his messages specifically to the country’s mood.
Greenberg took polling from simply a measure of opinion to becoming the one who shapes people’s views.
And with that change in opinion polling came a new approach from Washington. Our so-called representatives could now pursue their own agenda, independent from the electorate. After all, with a good “pollster,” the clever politician could convince those they represent that their solution was the best. In other words, the idea starts in Washington and then is sold to the constituents. Not the other way around.
Greenberg’s program is not yet perfected; occasionally, the public doesn’t follow behind. A Donald Trump is elected, a Bud Lite campaign goes haywire, or a Tucker Carlson is fired without prior planning.
But for those of us, who cherish free speech and representative government, this new form of “opinion shaping” is far too successful. Our current President, Joe Biden, is the best example of the transformation from representative government to opinion shaping.
There is no consultation with Congress or the American People, like a medieval potentate Biden laid out his agenda. He spent the first two days of his Presidency signing edict after edict, er Executive Order after Executive Order. He learned the pollster’s lesson of using just the right title to sell any proposal.
Call an Act the Inflation Reduction Act, and people will accept it, even though each cost estimate for this particular Act is higher than the last, thereby promoting, not reducing, inflation; mandate Electric Vehicles, whether or not people want to drive EVs, merely because, in this new world, he has the power and influence. And he can send our resources and advisors to fight a proxy war in Ukraine, even though a growing number of Americans are in opposition.
Biden, as President, knows that the federal bureaucracy, along with the media, will help shape Public Opinion here too.
This week the “Polling Season” has begun. But before we take stock of what the polls say, first, we need to question who they’re working for. Are they measuring public opinion or shaping it?