Did you know that 74 percent of all statistics are made up on the spot? Fortunately for us, Frank Newport, editor-in-chief of Gallup, never allows himself the luxury of the loose percentage or cocktail party statistic.
When America wants to know what we think of our president, our gun or abortion laws, our teenagers, or where we are going in our religions, we turn to Newport. He and the 700 Gallup interviewers he oversees conduct 350,000 annual interviews plus inquiries in another 150 nations. As he puts it, “The poll is an invaluable tool for uncovering collective wisdom.”
For those who want to learn where America is currently trending and how Gallup is keeping its pulse on our 300 million souls, Newport will be speaking on “The Insider’s Guide to America Today” at the Princeton Historical Society’s free annual meeting and Lewis B. Cuyler Lecture on Wednesday, February 6, at 7 p.m., at Princeton’s Nassau Club, 6 Mercer Street. Visit www.princetonhistory.org to reserve seats.
For the last 26 years, Newport has held his hand on the pulse of the nation’s public opinion and behaviors. He dutifully records our beliefs and practices on politics, economy, religion, major issues, and consumer habits. A tantalizing taste of his analyses and results may be found on his NPR weekly radio show “What Are We Thinking” and WHYY-FM’s “Attitude Check,” and many media outlets.
He has written “Polling Matters: Why Leaders must listen to the Wisdom of the People” and co-wrote “Winning the White House 2008: The Gallup Poll, Public Opinion, and the Presidency.” His latest book, “God is Alive and Well,” may be said to truly rock religion’s doom-and-gloom prognosticators who have been forecasting faith’s demise this past decade.
A native of Fort Worth, Texas, Newport grew up the “son of a Southern Baptist theologian and philosopher father.” He attended Baylor University at the height of this nation’s collegiate dissidence and anti-Vietnam-war protests, from 1966 to 1970. His broadcasting degree and an expected career in the field got sidetracked by military service, which redirected him to the University of Michigan, where he earned a Ph.D. in sociology. Armed with his doctorate, Newport then taught at the University of Missouri. In 1987, he joined the opinion poll firm of Tarrance, Hill, Newport & Ryan, which was bought by Gallup a year later.
Gallup was founded in Princeton in 1935 by George Gallup as the American Institute of Public Opinion. After Gallup’s death the firm was sold in 1988 to Selection Research Inc. Though the company’s world headquarters was moved to Washington D.C., the firm continues to maintain a Princeton location at 502 Carnegie Center.
In 1991, Newport took over as editor-in-chief of America’s largest and most prestigious polling firm, and his decades of work to make the polling process more complete and accurate have afforded him a rare view of where the country is headed.
With the incessant barrage of special interest preachments, media streams, and hastily conducted news surveys, it is frankly difficult for the American public — all 300 million of us — to have an idea of what we are collectively thinking. Newport finds that not only are we very much interested and opinionated, but we appear to be very much wiser than many of our leaders may be giving us credit for.
A nation of conflicts. One of the reasons that our lawmakers may not be catching on to our collective wishes and wisdom, according to Newport, is that we send some pretty confused signals.
“In one way, we have always been a nation of conservatives, that is, we hate big government. We think it is inefficient, we think it is wasteful and not tending to our needs,” says Newport. “On the other hand we wholeheartedly love the things big government does for us — Social Security, Medicare, defense efforts — these we vote high marks and high budgets.”
Likewise, we hate every new tax, but love the things they buy — education aid and its institutions, the Centers for Disease Control, air traffic control, our defense department.
“Nor are we any more fond of large corporations,” notes Newport. “We time and again vote them as self-serving, not concerned with any of our interests, however, we heartily approve of the personal benefits they bring us.” The computer industry holds our national suspicions, all the while we vote in our polls and with our dollars our approval of their latest fad products.
Top concerns. Point by individual point, the public has expressed positive views of President Obama’s latest gun control bill. As a nation, we are glad for each individual item, yet these are not tops on the public’s agenda. The big four concerns of Americans today are, in order: The economy, the federal debt, a dysfunctional legislature, and jobs.
It is the third of these that our citizens have been sending the loudest and clearest complaints to Congress, Newport points out. Congress has thus far in 2013 an abysmal 14 percent approval rating, and an even worse 10 percent rating in the last year. “We really don’t want the opposition taking us to the brink and living in a constant state of threat,” says Newport. “We want legislators to compromise, and they are beginning to listen.”
Of course, everybody wants our Congress to get back on track and begin doing its job to free us from this fiscal morass. However, we Americans still remain woefully divided by our party persuasions. Currently about 85 percent of Democrats approve of how President Obama is conducting business, while only 10 percent of Republicans say they approve. Regardless of how anxious we are for them to compromise, we are sticking fairly strongly to our political party camps.
Part of this party division is inherited. Afro-Americans typically vote 95 percent Democratic, regardless of the candidate. Asian immigrants are mostly Democratic voters. “This last election 70 percent of Hispanic voters favored President Obama. But there comes a change here,” says Newport. “As Hispanics move into the second and third generation, they become increasingly Republican.”
Social & faith arenas. To lump all popular liberal and conservative agenda items onto a scale and poll for the winner provides a distorted picture. Newport reports that the vast majority of Americans think that gay marriage is acceptable. All but 20 percent believe that abortion is all right in certain cases. The majority, however, definitely feel that teenage girls must get parental permission first.
In short, the good, old-fashioned “family values” are not as mythically unified as we might believe. Americans are deciding issue by issue. This in no way, Newport says, an indication that we are on a secular slide or that religion, as we know it, teeters on the edge of a godless black hole. “We stand on the cusp of many changes as to how we express our religion,” he says. “This is natural. It’s happened before, and that it is happening now presents no threat to religion as a whole.”
Keeping up to date. Today, 35 percent of all American households have only cell phones — no land lines. For Gallup, who makes most of its surveys through random phone selection, this has taken a bit of shuffling. The Gallup premise is that if a random sampling may be achieved, similar to the balls selected in the lottery, that small, random sampling can be representative of the whole. Using various area codes and random numbers, Gallup achieves its scientific selection. Since the company formed in 1935, its accuracy has been remarkably high.
Thus, Gallup today conducts approximately half of its interviews over cell phones. It plans interviews to last between five to never more than 18 minutes. “You need enough questions so you can intercorrelate and compare answers,” says Newport. At the same time, you have to check for response bias. Older women, it is known, are more eager to be interviewed, but you don’t want to claim national opinion based on only the ideas of women over 50.
The Gallup poll, like the census and our electoral vote, is just one more way of having our say. Whether it’s a government seeking our input on legislation, an academic studying our collective beliefs, or a manufacturer seeking what we want in auto features, Gallup provides one more avenue for you to express your beliefs and desires.
However, since democracy remains the rule of the most energetic, you might be better off seizing the lapels of those issues about which you really care, and writing a personal letter to your law or auto maker. Then, you might set down your pen and visit Newport’s blog, PollingMatters.Gallup.com, to help see how you stack up with the rest of the nation.