THE OPEN MIND
Host: Richard D. Heffner
Guest: Burns Roper
Title: “What’s Your Opinion?”
I’m Richard Heffner, your host on THE OPEN MIND.
A couple of months ago I watched and listened carefully – and with enormous respect and admiration – to an old opinion research friend being interviewed on what I think of as public broadcasting’s greatest contribution to an enlightened public opinion: the MacNeill-Lehrer Report. I couldn’t – and wouldn’t even try to – match Robin MacNeill’s provocative questioning. But the years have been so filled with change in America since Burns Roper, Chairman of the Roper Organization – which, as Mr. MacNeill said, has been taking the pulse of the American public since 1993 – last joined me here on THE OPEN MIND, that I want to ask my old friend if he still insists, as he did last time, the “public opinion is becoming harder to measure when it comes to political” matters.
My interpretation of this intriguing judgment was that it stemmed from the growing uncertainties of contemporary American life, uncertainties that presumably make it less and less possible generally for us really to know what we think with certainty, and, more important, what we’re really going to do about what we presumably think: how we’re going to act on any one issue of candidate before us. Which must make public opinion measurement these days a tricky thing, indeed.
But I had better ask my guest if I state the matter fairly enough. Bud?
Roper: I think you’re right. That…it used to be that the greatest problem in opinion polling was making sure you had enough people of all the different demographic types because within each of them, their opinion was pretty clear. Now, people are pretty ambivalent within themselves. They, they…on the one hand they’re a Catholic, on the other hand, they’re a lawyer and in another dimension they’re something else. And all of these pressures react within them and I think frequently people don’t know what they’re going to do based on their complicated set of opinions.
Heffner: Well, what does that do to the, to the profession…
Roper: Makes it tougher.
Heffner: …of which you’re part of.
Roper: It makes it tougher because you can measure all of these dimensions, but they you’ve got to decide which are going to be controlling coming…come election day.
Heffner: Tell me, just between the two of us, how do you factor these, how do you weigh them?
Roper: In your infallible judgment. (Laughter) Which is why sometimes you’re wrong.
Heffner: Well, tell me again now, what does it do, in your mind, to the value and the validity of public opinion research?
Roper: Well, obviously, if you, if you haven’t taken into account the proper factors, you’re going to be wrong. It puts a premium, I think on having more than one poll because if you have two or three the chances are better that somebody is going to find the critical dimension. I remember when we were doing…this goes back a ways…but when we were asking people whether President Nixon should be impeached or not, all the polls were showing the people thought he was guilty of this and guilty of that and guilty of the other thing, but he should not be impeached. And I couldn’t understand this. And I talked about it with one of my partners and she said, “Well, I think it’s the way the media are using the term ‘impeachment’, it sounds like a lynching”. And that rung a bell with me and we asked people which of two things they thought impeachment ws, and regardless of which they answered, we told them what I was, and we said, “Do you think the charges against President Nixon are serous enough so that impeachment proceedings should be started?” We got a much different response than anyone else got. We got much more sentiment for impeachment. We also found that, I think it was 37% thought it was a lynching. 52% had picked the correct definition of what impeachment was, but if 37% guessed wrong, that may mean that 37% of the 52% were guessing right. Really, very few people knew, and what they were saying was, “He shouldn’t be impeached until he’s had a fair trial”.
Heffner: Shouldn’t be hanged.
Roper: Shouldn’t be impeached, as they thought impeachment meant hanging.
Heffner: Right, right. Now, how do you offer your own definitions in terms of your own opinion research? What do you do to construct the definitions so that you can avoid that kind of miscalculation?
Roper: Well, you know, it comes out of a fair amount of experience, and we also always have a…you never have a committee write a questionnaire. That’s disaster. But we do have a committee review it, and so, I mean, when I write a question, it doesn’t go through my staff unscathed. It may get completely re-written, same with the rest of the staff.
Heffner: But, Bud, given the potential for miscalculation based upon definitions that don’t mean the same things to different people…
Heffner: …or that are unknown to them…
Heffner: …how does, how does that impact upon the value we in the public should place upon the results of opinion research.
Roper: Well, I don’t know the answer to that. I do know that when we get, when we get the committee reviewing it, and some person says “Well, that means this to me” and everybody else says, “Oh, no, it means this”. We don’t just say, “Well, it’s four to one, so we’re going with this”. So, if one out of five see another meaning in it, let’s find a new set of words, let’s find an additional set of words so that we eliminate this ambiguity and confusion.
Heffner: Well, whatever degree, whatever the degree to…that you…to which you employ these tactics in making certain that your questions are better rather than worse, what about the profession generally? Is enough care taken a) in the construction of questions, b) in the surveys themselves, and c) in the interpretation of the results to the public, in your estimation?
Roper: Well, needless to say, I think we do the best job. But, there’s a lot of, there’s a lot of attention devoted to all of this. I think there’s another, there’s another area that’s as serious as this. This, incidentally is the reason I’ve always said you shouldn’t just print the result, you should print the question asked along with the result, because the question asked is the one thing the public is really in a position to judge, if only because they know how they would answer it.
Heffner: Is that done most usually?
Roper: No, it is not. It’s not common at all. It’s…
Roper: …getting more common…oh, I don’t know. One of the, one of the network researchers whom I’ve argued this with for years, has said, “We don’t have the time, air time is too valuable to put the question wording up”. And I’ve always said, “You always have time to put up, with a sample of this size it’s accurate to within plus or minus three percentage points, though”. And I said, “Why don’t you just dump that statement which doesn’t mean anything to anyone and put the wording of the question”. But the other thing is that, you know, if you got a 72% approved figure, that looks just as authoritative if nobody had ever heard about the subject you asked them until you asked them, as if they had given it great and deep thought for years. And 72% favor “x”. I think that’s a very important element and it’s one we’re beginning to address more and more is…do people know what they’re talking about? Do they…is this something they know about, is it something they’re interested in? Is it something they’ve thought about? Is it something they’ve got some knowledge of? Now, I’ve had people who say, “How do you decide who to interview?” And I say, “What do you mean?” We decide it based on demographics. “Yeah, but you don’t interview people who clearly don’t know who the candidates are”. “Yes, we do”. “Well, why?” “Because they’re entitled to a vote”.
Heffner: A vote in your poll, or a vote in…
Roper: A vote at the ballot box. And they’re entitled to make a choice at the grocery store. They’re, they’ve got a certain amount of rights and we’re not going to exclude them. Now, what we’re doing increasingly is separating them…those who have no interest in the subject and no knowledge of the subject, separately from those who have high interest and high knowledge and then all the different possible combinations of knowledge and opinion in between. But we’re not excluding those who have no interest and no knowledge because they could vote if it got to be a referendum of some kind.
Heffner: What are you doing, weighing them in the balance?
Roper: What we’re doing is showing how the total sample answers and then showing how the most informed and interested differ from the least informed and least interested, so that you can see whether they are…the uninformed are reacting to the question itself and not to the issue of whether there’s no difference between the uninformed and the informed, which suggests you’re measuring public opinion and not…in one case public opinion and in another case, reactions to the words in the question.
Heffner: You know, Bud, that seems like such an obvious and rational and reasonable approach to it, it’s shocking then, to know that this hasn’t generally been the approach in opinion research.
Roper: Well, it hasn’t. There was…one of our competitors came up with an approach called the “mushiness index”, and it was an attempt to do exactly what I’m talking about. But it was so cumbersome that it took five questions…I forget just what they were, awareness, knowledge, interest, opinion and then strength of opinion. So that what, what it meant was that the interview had to be five times as long to cover the same subject matter. Now that wouldn’t make it five times as expensive, but it would probably make it two to three times as expensive. You do have practical constraints like, “Does your client have unlimited pockets?” And, are you better off measuring one subject completely, thoroughly and avoiding four other important subjects or are you better off getting an opinion on each of the five, even if it’s not all that informed? So there’s a trade-off there. I think we’ve come up with a way of making the trade-off minimal.
Heffner: Well, when, when you and I have talked before, I’ve always gone back to that Saturday Review editorial that your Dad wrote…
Heffner: …many, many, many years ago, when Nelson Rockefeller said he was going to withdraw form the Presidential race or for the nomination, the Republican nomination for President…because public opinion research had indicated that the public felt about the issues that he took one position on, in a different way, or in different ways.
Heffner: And your Dad was very much upset about that…
Roper: I know he was…
Heffner: …he felt that leaders should lead, not follow public opinion polls. What do you think?
Roper: I think that’s right, but I, I, I’m not sure that polls are the culprit in that. I think that if, if all the campaign advisors had told him the same thing, he would…might well have come to the same conclusion. What somebody does wit data is, is up to him. I think a better approach would have been to say, “Well, I’m going to change their minds for them, I’m going to tell them why they’re wrong”. But a lot of people aren’t built that way.
Heffner: Okay, that’s a much more noble approach.
Roper: Noble…and maybe stupid.
Heffner: Stupid in terms of winning and losing.
Roper: Yeah. Yeah.
Heffner: Okay, noble, principled…
Roper: Right. Right.
Heffner: Question: how many of our contemporary leaders take that approach rather than finding out from you and your, your public opinion colleagues, your research colleagues, what the public thinks and following the public.
Roper: Well, I don’t know. I have the…I don’t think human nature’s changed that much. My guess is, and I…and I can’t prove this…that candidates of fifty and a hundred years ago divided about like they do today in terms of being popular or sticking with their principles. Now, press scrutiny is so much greater today that maybe that causes more people who are inclined to stick to their principles to say, “The hell with it, I won’t, I won’t run the race” than used to. But I don’t think, I don’t think it changes the incidence of followers and leaders. I don’t think it turns people who are essentially leaders into followers to have pools that tell them…
Heffner: You mean there’s still…
Roper: …how things…
Heffner: …American politicians who say, “I’d rather be right than President”?
Heffner: Now, when you were talking with Robin in this, in the MacNeill, in this program that I watched, you got on the subject of foreign policy, you got on the subject of war and peace…
Heffner: And Robin asked you what you thought about certain things, and I’m not going to quite do that yet, but I, I do want to find out, as best you can tell me what Americans are thinking about in terms of, we’re, we’re taping this now in November 1990, but the time it is seen on the screen, who knows where we will be or not be in the Mid-East…
Heffner: But what do you think in terms of what you know about opinion research? Americans will accept by way of involvement overseas?
Roper: Well, I said on that show that I thought whether we had the power…the will to stay the course, whatever the course proves to be, was a function of how important people continued to see the purpose of being there to be, and, and what the cost was, either in increased taxes, or deficit, or more importantly, body bags. And I think that’s still the case. I said that if people saw Saddam Hussein as another Hitler, they’d stay the course. If they saw it as we’re doing this for US oil interests and is it worth losing lives for a nickel a gallon of gasoline, they wouldn’t stay the course. I think that’s still true. And I think you’re beginning to get more and more questions raised about what is our mission, why are we there. It was to stop aggression, now we’re talking about an aggressive capability, not just a defensive capability. And I, I don’t know where it will end, but I continue to think that it’s a function of how important people continue to see the purpose to be and is the cost acceptable.
Heffner: Is there any indication, at this point, a couple of months after you and Robin spoke that there is a diminishing feeling that we are where we belong, we’re there and we have a mission and my gosh, and my golly, we’re going to stay there.
Roper: Well, I’m not sure about a diminishing feeling about being there, but there certainly is very little appetite for, for launching a war to recapture Kuwait. Launching a war for any purpose. To be there and stop him with our presence is acceptable. To take aggressive action, from what I’ve seen, is not. And that’s what I think Bush is in a box on that.
Heffner: Well, Lyndon Johnson, when he retired from the race, said he wasn’t going to…
Roper: Yes. Yes.
Heffner: …fun for the Democratic nomination…1968, the next day went up to Chicago and spoke to…I believe it was the next day…spoke to a meeting of the National Association of Broadcasters, and he said to them, in a most profound speech, “If the media had been present, had been as extensive in their reportage during the Second World War, during those early years when we were losing hands down, when we were suffering defeat after defeat, if you fellows had been there, been their particularly with your cameras, this country would not have had the will”, or at least he said, “I wonder if this country would have maintained the will to pursue that war”. Now, we’re measuring opinion at a time when the camera is everywhere.
Roper: Well, I’m not sure he was right on that. In fact, I’m not sure he couldn’t have won the election if he’d stayed in the race. I’ve always felt that. The…the assumption seems to be that we were against Vietnam from the start. We were not against Vietnam from the start. We had…we supported…the majority of the public supported the Vietnamese war fro well over three years. And it finally turned against it. But the opinion now seems to be everybody was against it except Lyndon Johnson. Well, that’s just plain not true. We, we supported that war for a long time, despite some question about whether or not this really was the last defense against worldwide Communism, and whether or not it was worth losses that were pushing up into the 50,000 range. So I, I don’t by the…and it was in your living room every night so, I don’t but the premise…I don’t think that seeing the slaughter helps peoples’ appetite for staying the course. But I don’t think it automatically means we have no stomach for along involvement.
Heffner: What do you think it would mean now? In terms of the Middle East?
Roper: I think it depends upon how important people see the purpose is.
Roper: And I don’t’ think they are looking at Saddam Hussein that much as a Hitler. I think they’re looking at it more as a, a fight for oil. Not, not just a fight to keep the price of oil down, I think there’s…I think a lot of people are probably much more concerned about Hussein getting a strangle-hold on the world’s oil supply and being able to bring the rest of the world to its knees. I think…so I don’t think it’s yet reached the point of “is it worth all this for 10 cents a gallon”.
Heffner: Well, I raise the question because the other evening I was with a group of people and our host went around this large table, saying “What would you do?” What would you do? What would you do?
Roper: Yeah, right.
Heffner: And everyone there was for…was rather bellicose, was rather war-like. Now, these…you know the story, these were not the people of the age to fight wars…
Heffner: Their children might be tough.
Heffner: But these people all assumed that if the President so decided, he had the power in terms of public opinion, to wage war.
Roper: I question…it’s, it’s…I see what I think are signs of, of doubts in the public opinion area. To be there defensively, to keep Hussein from going further…yes. But to use force to get him out of there, I’m not sure there’s that much popular support for it. And I’m not sure there’s that much international support for it, either, so I…this coalition he put together was brilliant coalition, but now he’s got to listen to it.
Heffner: But, you know, one of the things I wanted to try and tease out of this situation was whether, indeed, on any issue in America today the requirements of a, of a real effort, something which you make sacrifices, you make sacrifices in your own pleasure, in your own time, in your own dollars…
Heffner: Whether we have, in terms of the researches you’ve done and that you know about, we’ve reached a point where it’s less and less likely that national determination can be moved in the direction of self-sacrifice. Again, I know you’re going to say it depends upon the issue before us.
Roper: I think it probably is harder to…I mean…the time when people did that…
Roper: Yes, is…is distant. They haven’t had to that much in recent years. So I think when you get used to a luxury you begin to accept it as a sort of a basic necessity. But I think, given a serious enough thing people would make sacrifices.
Heffner: That means attacked…being attacked?
Roper: Yeah. Yeah. I think…I don’t think there’d be any question that we’d stay there under those circumstances.
Roper: And that there’d be support for it.
Heffner: That rather makes it more difficult for a President…
Roper: Oh, yes it does.
Roper: It does. Yeah.
Heffner: You think Mr. Bush is enormously well-aware of that?
Roper: I hope Mr. Bush understands Saddam Hussein more intimately than I do, and I hope Saddam Hussein understands Mr. Bush more intimately than I do.
Heffner: But of course, Hussein must be asking questions of his advisors, if he has any…what about the American people, what are they likely to think if we do…
Roper: I think that’s easier to determine than what those two men are thinking about themselves.
Heffner: And that you believe yourself that it’s harder to determine these days what we think…
Roper: Harder to determine than it used to be. That’s right. But I think it’s easier to determine what the public would do under various circumstances than it is than the two leaders.
Heffner: Bud, over the years in our talking together, we talked about public opinion research, do you see anything new on the horizon for public opinion research? Something good or bad, something that puts it in a better position or a worse position?
Roper: Well, not beyond what we’ve talked about. I, I think there is…I think there is a tendency to…on the part not so much of the pollsters, but people using the polling gimmick to disregard the accuracy of their poll, if it serves their purposes. Their purposes being either to raise funds for their organization, or to influence the Congress or somebody with the, with the results of their poll. I’m thinking specifically of these fund-raising things you get where it says “Important Ballot Inside – Open Immediately”. And then they have five loaded questions on whatever the subject is, and, and please send us a contribution and they have you down for $15, $55, $73 or $211 and they’ve circled $211 as what they’ve got you down for. That…they’ve got to know that that’s lousy research, that they’re not getting a good reading. They wouldn’t get a good reading even if they had unbiased questions because if they tie it to…you’ve got to pay to express your opinion…
Heffner: Yeah, but now you’re talking about the impact, the influence of inadequate polling.
Heffner: And yours is a profession.
Heffner: The doctors regulate themselves.
Heffner: Presumably. The lawyers do. Presumably.
Heffner: Your profession?
Roper: We try to.
Roper: With some success. We’ve gotten…we’ve had some organizations who have backed off from using the survey and the fund-raising. But a lot of them have said, “We know it’s no good, but it works”.
Heffner: Would you look forward to the involvement of government?
Roper: No. I wouldn’t because I’m not sure that the…in that case that the cure isn’t worse than the disease. But this is why the National Council on Public Polls has its disclosure rules. And, and it’s had some effect, too. This is why all of the organizations I know of in the field have codes of ethics, and codes of conduct. They don’t, they don’t work in every instance, but they do work increasingly.
Heffner: Certainly, though, you’d agree that for the public at large, it reads the newspaper headlines, or it hears the reports of polling or radio or television, and it believes what it reads or sees or hears.
Roper: There’s no…there’s no strong evidence that people blindly either believe or follow the results of polls. I think that…
Heffner: Terrific. Good.
Roper: I say “good”, too. I think they’re interested in them, I think they take them into account, I think they take them with a grain of salt, and they say, “Well, that may be the way people feel, but I don’t feel that way”.
Heffner: Well, it may well be, listening to your analysis people will feel that way more and more. And that’s why I want to thank you for joining me today, Bud Roper.
Roper: I enjoyed it, Dick.
Heffner: And thanks, too, to you in the audience. I hope you’ll join us again next time. And if you care to share your thoughts about today’s program, please write to THE OPEN MIND, P.O. Box 7977, FDR Station, New York, NY 10150. For transcripts send $2.00 in check or money order. Meanwhile, as another old friend used to say, “Good night and good luck”.
Continuing production of this series has generously been made possible by grants from: The Rosalind P. Walter Foundation; The M. Weiner Foundation of New Jersey; The Mediators and Richard and Gloria Manney; The Edythe and Dean Dowling Foundation; The New York Times Company Foundation; The Richard Lounsbery Foundation; and, from the corporate community, Mutual of America.