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Wednesday, October 20, 2010

75 Years Ago, the First Gallup Poll

A unique anniversary is upon us. Seventy-five years ago today -- Oct. 20, 1935 -- the Gallup Poll published its first official release of public opinion data.

Here we are three-quarters of a century later, still working to fulfill the mission laid out in that first release: providing scientific, nonpartisan assessment of American public opinion.

The subject of that first release? Well, given the fact that 1935 was smack dab in the middle of the Depression, it may come as no surprise that the topic focused on public opinion about “relief and recovery,” or in other words, welfare. President Franklin Delano Roosevelt was at that time heavily involved in creating a number of relief, recovery, and work programs designed to help people whose lives were being affected by the Depression. Figuring out what the public thought about all of this became Dr. George Gallup's first official poll question.

What may come as a surprise is the fact that the majority of Americans were negative about the government's “relief and recovery” efforts in the fall of 1935. The Gallup release noted that 60% of Americans believed “expenditures by the Government for relief and recovery” were too great, while just 9% said they were too little. Another 31% said they were about right.

Franklin Roosevelt of course was a Democrat. The Gallup release showed, as would be expected, that Democrats were more supportive of relief and recovery than Republicans. Fifty-three percent of Democrats said that the expenditure by the government on relief and recovery was about right. A whopping 89% of Republicans said it was too great.

Roosevelt in 1935 was coming up on his 1936 bid for re-election. His opponent ended up being Kansas Gov. Alf Landon. Landon’s campaign was based in large part on opposition to the relief and recovery efforts of the Roosevelt administration. In his Republican nomination acceptance speech delivered in Topeka, Kan., in July 1936, Landon said among other things: “Too frequently recovery has been hindered, if not defeated, by political considerations . . . The present administration asked for, and received, extraordinary powers upon the assurance that these were to be temporary....We knew they were being undertaken hastily and with little deliberation . . . Now it becomes our duty to examine the record as it stands. The record shows that these measures did not fit together into any definite program of recovery. Many of them worked at cross-purposes and defeated themselves. Some developed into definite hindrances to recovery. They had the effect generally of extending control by Washington into the remotest corners of the country . . . ”

I'm no presidential historian, and all elections are complex affairs, but one might think from the 1935 Gallup data that Landon's message would have hit a resonant chord with voters. And at least one very popular poll of the day, conducted by The Literary Digest magazine, predicted that Landon would in fact defeat Roosevelt in the November 1936 election.

But, Dr. George Gallup, the founder of our company, conducted polls using more systematic, scientific sampling techniques than were used by the Digest poll (which relied on millions of mailed in "ballots").  Dr. Gallup went public with his predictions that Roosevelt would win re-election handily. Roosevelt of course did win, and the Gallup poll was on its way to becoming a well-known and well-respected component of American political life. So within about a year of that October, 1935 release, Dr. Gallup's new approach to measuring public opinion had begun to make his name and his company a household name.

That first Gallup release was officially published by the American Institute of Public Opinion (AIPO), which is what Dr. Gallup called his organization in those early days. The release was accompanied by Dr. Gallup's statement of purpose for his company:

The American Institute of Public Opinion, a non partisan fact-finding organization which will report the trend of public opinion on one major issue each week, has collected this information by means of personal interviews and mail questionnaires from thousands of voters located in every state in the union. Persons in all walks of life have been polled in order to obtain an accurate cross section. The results of these polls are being published for the first time today in leading newspapers -- representing every shade of political preference.

That was the beginning. A lot has changed in the 75 years since that first release. Dr. Gallup passed away in 1984. The company has expanded greatly and now conducts research in many areas of business and social life, not only domestically here in the United States, but around the world. The methods used for sampling and measuring public opinion have changed significantly over the years. Interviewing in the U.S. is now primarily done by telephone -- landline and cell phone --rather than the in-person and mail surveys used in the early days. But our commitment remains the same -- providing nonpartisan and unbiased data measuring public opinion on the major issues of our time, allowing “people in all walks of life” to have their voice represented in the marketplaces of political discourse and social ideas.

Friday, October 15, 2010

Dealing With the Federal Government's Image Problem

If the federal government were a business, we would advise it to address the issue of its negative image and brand positioning.

The fact that the federal government is viewed so negatively by its customers -- the people of the country -- is in some ways surprising. The federal government is nothing more than an extension of the people themselves, ultimately controlled by the people. But when the people hear the words “federal government,” the reaction today is generally quite negative. For many, this entity has become a symbol of all that is wrong with the country. And the focus of a great deal of enmity.

About half of Americans will agree that the federal government poses an immediate threat to the rights and freedoms of ordinary citizens. Asked why they feel this way, respondents give these answers (in rank order of frequency of mention): government has too many laws, government is too involved in people’s private laws, government is taking away freedom of speech and violating the First Amendment, the newly enacted healthcare law, the government is socialist, the government extracts too many taxes from its citizens, the government is taking away the freedom of religion, the government is violating the Second Amendment and taking away gun rights.

This exemplifies a traditional conflict between the people of a nation and the government or ruler than controls them politically. If the government is run by an oligarch or dictator, then the conflict makes sense. The U.S. is, however, an experiment in a government by the people, of the people, and for the people. The people of the country are in ultimate charge of the government. The people of the country can change their government through votes and elections. The men and women sent off to run the government are, in theory, accountable to the people.

Yet we have half of the people saying that their own government constitutes an immediate threat to their rights and freedoms.

There’s more. The image of the federal government is so bad that it ends up being next to the bottom in our list of 25 business and industry sectors whose image we measure each year. Only the oil and gas industry is lower. The image of the federal government comes in with a -32 image. That’s based on 58% of the public who have a negative reaction when they heard the words “federal government” and only 26% who have a positive reaction. The oil and gas industry is -43. At the top of the list is the computer industry, with a +49.

We recently asked Americans to tell us the first thing that came into their mind when asked to describe the “federal government.” Seven out of ten responses were negative. We have posted the entire list of all of these verbatims online. Read through them yourself if you would like to get an idea of what people think of when they hear the "FG” words. It’s a sobering experience.

There is still more. Some of our trends show the image of the federal government or things related to it as negative as we have seen in our Gallup history of asking the questions. These include trust in the way the nation is being governed, trust in the legislative branch of government, and the perception that the government has too much power.

Gallup and USA Today co-sponsored a summit in Washington, D.C., on Oct. 13 to try to shed light on this central issue of our political time. Among other things, the summit highlighted the facts that:
  • While Americans are very negative about the federal government in general, they acknowledge in many different ways that the federal government performs useful functions. It does not appear that many Americans think the government should go away entirely.
  • There is a wide dispersion across the American population in views of the federal government. While the majority have negative views, some segments of the population are quite happy to see the government involved in many aspects of daily life.
  • The federal government is a huge entity composed of many different moving parts and control systems. Saying one does not like the federal government is like saying that one does not like “sports.” Digging down, there are more nuanced images.
  • A good deal of the enmity that is focused on the federal government may be aimed at the legislative and executive branches, not the departments and agencies that do the government's work. Congress in particular is held in low esteem by the public. The perceived honesty and ethics of members of Congress and senators is rated not much higher than that of car salespeople. Views of partisan wrangling and bickering in Congress are at an all-time high.
  • Some of the image problems with the federal government may have to do with perceptions of its efficiency and effectiveness. Americans aren’t convinced that the government does a great job carrying out its functions in all areas. (This is a problem run into by all large businesses.)
There is no simple way to fix all of these issues. We have plumbed in-depth the views of the American public on this issue and will continue to do so.

Three recommendations came out of our recent summit that deserve attention. One would be a focus just on the overall brand image of government, which is really in bad shape. Second, a focus on ways to bring the people back into the process -- both symbolically and in reality. Third, a focus on increasing the efficiency of the way government works, following up what Vice President Al Gore attempted in the 1990s. Fourth, a focus on the bad image of Congress per se and the way it goes about doing its business. And, above all else, a focus on the fact that there is a problem -- that our elected leaders need to be cognizant of and to take into account the basic fact that Americans have strong, often emotional, and more negative than positive views of their government.

Friday, October 8, 2010

The Onion Hits Nail on Head

The satirical publication The Onion has hit a nail on the head with a recent (and funny) story on representative government in the U.S. The Onion titles its article “American People Hire High-Powered Lobbyist to Push Interests in Congress.” The satiric piece goes on to report that “the American people” hired a high-powered Washington lobbyist to “ . . . ensure its concerns are taken into account when Congress addresses issues . . . ” since “ . . . the U.S. populace lacks the access to public officials required to further its legislative goals.”

The idea, of course, is that with all of the special and corporate interests doing their best to influence elected representatives in Washington, the people themselves are left out in the cold.

This satire will strike a resonant chord with many Americans, who currently show the lowest trust in the legislative branch in Gallup’s history, whose ratings of the honesty and ethics of members of Congress and the Senate are at near lows, and whose approval of Congress is near an all time low.

These miserable ratings of Congress probably reflect a number of different issues and concerns. In part, it may be that the bad economic times cause Americans to be more negative about everything in society -- classic displacement. But I’m sure a lot of Americans do, in fact, share The Onion writers’ views that elected representatives in Washington are not effectively representing their (that is, the people’s) interests.

We have found consistently in recent years that Americans have significantly more confidence in their own ability to direct policy than they do in the men and women who are elected to represent them. This has always been an interesting finding to me. Members of Congress are supposed to be closely in sync with the people back home.  Ideally the average American should have just as much trust in his or her representative as in themselves.

The Onion satirically proposes that the American people hire a lobbyist to compete with all the other lobbyists pressing elected representatives for their attention. That’s probably not going to happen, although there are many, many think tanks and other organizations in Washington which already purport to be taking the public’s interests to Congress. But there are other steps the public can take to address the perception that their elected representatives are out of touch. For one, voting out whatever party happens to be in power, as we may be witnessing this year. For another, creating a third party -- independent of the two major parties -- in the hope that such a third party would more effectively represent the people’s interests.

Of course, many of our elected representatives most likely believe that they do, in fact, represent the people back home, or at least that they are doing what they believe is in the people's interests. The problem is that elected representatives’ views of what those interests are may not be in sync with what the people themselves believe their interests are.

Elected representatives face a daunting challenge. Many are sincerely doing the best they can. But by all available evidence, once in Washington, our representatives' focus turns more to the forces that are most proximate and seemingly powerful -- including party bosses, special interests, anyone who has money to distribute, and lobbyists.

Both President Obama and former President Bush have said that they do not pay attention to polls, but instead attempt to do what is right for the American people. The key question, of course, is how they determine what is right for the American people. Ignoring polling data that represent what the people themselves think and believe seems in many ways to be a strange way to go about doing what is right for those same people.

Gov. Gray Davis of California, just before he left the Statehouse in Sacramento after being voted out of office in a 2003 citizen recall (putting Arnold Schwarzenegger in place as his replacement) said this: “I didn’t stay in touch with the people . . . that’s clearly my biggest regret.” Members of Congress may, in the long-run, end up feeling the same way.

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