February 15, 2009 - February 21, 2009


Dispatches: Greenberg's Reponse to Schaffner and Moore

Topics: Dispatches from the War Room , Pollsters , Stan Greenberg

This guest pollster contribution from Stan Greenberg is part of Pollster.com's week-long series on his new book, Dispatches from the War Room. Greenberg is chairman and CEO of Greenberg Quinlan Rosner.

Brian Schaffner focuses on the role of pollsters in identifying groups and thus empowering them -- making their opinions relevant to political leaders. I am very conscious of the role and as you correctly point out, I put the spotlight on Macomb County's "Reagan Democrats" and after this election, moved the spotlight next door to upscale suburban Oakland County.

What groups "matter" in my work is not some blind search of the data to find interesting and distinctive groups.


In the period when the wall between my academic and political lives was starting to crumble, I was very taken by E. E. Schattshneider's argument that whomever decides what the fights about likely wins. Successful political leaders and campaigns control the subject, define the choice and choose the fight. Drawing that line decides what issues are important and critically, who gets engaged and who loses interest. In 1992 Clinton made the election about change and the economy stupid and President Bush failed to make it about trust and experience. This year, Obama made it about change and Hillary Clinton tried unsuccessfully to make it about experience, but when she shifted to the economy and the middle class, she put the spotlight on white working class voters who rallied to her.

"Reagan Democrats" derived from the political project that tried to put the middle class back at the center of a renewed Democratic Party -- but the groups emerged from the project. In the book, I argue for the strength of these five leaders because they made politics purposeful.

Related to this point is David Moore's important discussion of "intensity" of beliefs and and the ability of leaders to get people to change their views on an issue and follow them. Whether a leader touches people, understands the times and poses a choice that impacts their lives impacts both which issues get highlighted and how intense are reactions.

I fully agree that mapping intensity will give you a much better view of public thinking and how issues are likely to break. But what is interesting about my Jerusalem example is that people held intense views (which I measured and monitored closely) when they rejected the idea of dividing Jerusalem, but shifted their views nonetheless once the public debate forced them to think about all the possibilities. This is a life and death and emotional issue and voters followed it very closely but Ehud Barak, like earlier Israeli leaders, was able to move the deliberation to a longer-term framework for preserving a Jewish state.

Focusing on intensity will help pollsters know which opinions really matter and difficult to move, and I did a lot of simulation in my polls to see how dynamic are opinions. But I'm still in awe of how much opinions shifted on such a central issue in such a short period and still learning from the fact.

Dispatches: Greenberg's Response to Franklin (Part 2)

Topics: Dispatches from the War Room , Pollsters , Stan Greenberg

This guest pollster contribution from Stan Greenberg is part of Pollster.com's week-long series on his new book, Dispatches from the War Room. Greenberg is chairman and CEO of Greenberg Quinlan Rosner.

Charles Franklin rightly begins his comments by putting up my quote on page 58 that "the endgame in presidential campaigns brings out all sorts of irrationalities, starting with the media polls. Many are criminally bad." One of the problems in writing a book and a memoir is living with your words and thoughts, particularly when as unnuanced as those.


In retrospect, I might have been more nuanced. First, I made the comment in the context of the Clinton presidential campaign when the statement was clearly true, as described in the book. Second, it reflects my experience during the final weeks in campaigns in Britain and Israel and in Latin America, even very recently. But because of sites like Pollster.com, there is more transparency and exposure of shoddy methods, and despite strong budget pressures, the national media organizations in the US produced very credible polling programs in this last election. But as recently as 2004, there were stark examples of volatile polls without political weighting conducted by Gallup and aired on CNN, along with commentary on how fickle were the voters. The challenge will be what happens with media polls, as there is more upheaval in the industry and need for more costly multi-modal methodologies and greater use of IVR.

This is a very different matter when one goes down to the state and congressional level and when you are in lower turnout elections and primaries. The media polls, as well as polls conducted by universities and institutes, are often out of line with the campaign surveys, as they are less likely to screen or filter for likely voters, factor-in historic turnout patterns and consider use of exit polls, as well as CPS. That one in four state polls in 2008 were conducted one day suggests we are dealing with a genuine issue.

I Amen, Franklin's Amen. The biggest problem is the reporting, not the polls themselves. It is the "outlier" poll -- not the boring average that gets headlines. But it is even worse in the war rooms I'm writing about that are poised to explode in the closing week of the campaign. It is the errant poll, not the average, that sets off the sparks in the war room and gets the attention of the candidate.

Dispatches: Greenberg's Response to Charles Franklin (Part 1)

Topics: Dispatches from the War Room , Pollsters , Stan Greenberg

This guest pollster contribution from Stan Greenberg is part of Pollster.com's week-long series on his new book, Dispatches from the War Room. Greenberg is chairman and CEO of Greenberg Quinlan Rosner.

I want to come back in my next post to the first half of Charles Franklin's piece where he raises legitimate issues about my characterization of media polls. But before that I want to develop a point he makes -- about order of questions -- because I actually have some new information on the subject and it is hard to find anyone interested in such issues.

When it comes to the vote, I have spent a lot of time assessing how to get people most comfortable with answering and to minimize the number of false undecided. In my experience, the closer the question to the start of the survey, the larger the undecided. There is a price in possible bias in introducing prior questions but if those questions reflect the broad political context in which the vote choice is being made, you can risk that. So, we will usually have a right direction/wrong track question, most important problem (either open-end or closed), a favorability or thermometer battery on political leaders, parties and organizations -- broadly distributed and balanced. Each election is a test of whether that structure produces unbiased estimates.

Our national presidential results for Democracy Corps or by Greenberg Quinlan Rosner closely resemble the national media polls, with a somewhat smaller undecided (though I haven't done the comparison on this issue).

Presidential approval is different. People are comfortable answering the question and at presidential level, not a lot of undecided once in office for a period. When I polled in the White House for President Clinton, we started by asking the job approval after the thermometer/favorability battery and right before the vote. With President Clinton, I discovered that asked at that point, his approval rating was higher than reported by other organizations. So, we conducted an experiment where half the respondents heard the job approval at the front of the survey and half heard it right after the favorability battery about Clinton and other political leaders. The implicit comparison led people to rate Clinton higher. Since job approval was the indicator most important to us, we moved up to the front in the survey.

We continued that practice during Bush's term and Democracy Corps' approval for Bush was higher than the norm -- and often cited by the White House. Bush's job approval, unlike Clinton's, likely fell if considered alongside other leaders or if the survey dealt with Iraq, the economy, health care or any other topic where is approval was probably even lower. I know this is obvious, but order really matters.

I agree that openness is the best route to sorting these issues -- including publishing the full surveys wherever possible.

"Outliers" With a Touch of Grace

Topics: Outliers Feature

Obama Bigger Than Jesus, asks Dan Froomkin? Hokum says Gary Langer.

Republican pollster David Hill thinks GOP unity on the stimulus package was a blunder.

Mark Mellman considers the many meanings of "bipartisan."

Jay Cost is cheered by rising partisanship.

Chris Cillizza warns about reading too much into rising Congressional popularity (best wishes Chris!)

Eric Kleefeld Fisks the question wording of a Fox News poll.

Tom Jensen considers question wording when asking about a smoking ban.

Patrick Murray considers question wording when asking about gay marriage.

Chris Bowers says legalizing marijuana is now more popular than Republicans, also identifies "greatest poll ever."

Josh Marshall proposes a confidence interval (of sorts) for "really, really bad."

Michael Crowley is grateful to AP/GfK for double checking.

The New America Foundation releases a new report on the Millennials.

Charlie Cook foresees a record numbers of Senate seats up for grabs (bringing joy to pollsters and political consultants).

Carl Bialik shares some amazing cause-and-effect analysis of football scores (via Gelman).

Chris Masse finds only marginal utility in prediction markets (via Gelman).

Mark Blumenthal (yea, that's me) tweets a thought about the new CNN poll, allowing Ben Smith to "blog" it first. But I was busy working on something else. Speaking of which, make sure you check in with Pollster.com over the weekend, as I will have something very interesting posted tomorrow morning. Semi-false alarm: I'll likely post that item Monday morning, but we will have some interesting Oscar themed news on Sunday. 

And finally, Nancy Grace demonstrates what FailBlog calls a "Stats Fail" (and it's not a hoax):

US: Obama, Stimulus (CNN-2/18-19)

2/18-19/09; 1,046 adults, 3% margin of error
Mode: Live Telephone Interviews


Obama Job Approval
67% Approve, 29% Disapprove

As you may know, Congress passed and President Obama has signed a bill that will attempt to stimulate the economy by increasing federal government spending and cutting taxes at a total cost to the government of about eight hundred billion dollars. Based on what you have read or heard about this, do you favor or oppose that bill?

    60% Favor
    39% Oppose

Do you think that bill will or will not result in a significant improvement in your own personal financial situation?

    31% Significant improvement
    67% No significant improvement

(story, results)

NYC: 09 Mayor (Marist-2/16-17)

Marist Poll
2/16-17/09; 827 registered voters, 3.5% margin of error
546 registered Democrats, 4.5% margin of error
Mode: Live Telephone Interviews

New York City

Mayor Bloomberg Job Approval
52% Excellent/Good, 47% Fair/Poor

'09 Mayor Democratic Primary
Weiner 38%, Thompson 30%, Avella 9%

'09 Mayor General Election
Bloomberg (i) 53%, Weiner 37%
Bloomberg 53%, Thompson 36%
Bloomberg 57%, Avella 30%

Overall, do you think Mayor Bloomberg deserves to be re-elected mayor, or is it time to elect someone else?

    40% Deserves re-election
    55% Time to elect someone else


Dispatches: Greenberg's Response to Kristen Soltis

Topics: Dispatches from the War Room , Pollsters , Stan Greenberg

This guest pollster contribution from Stan Greenberg is part of Pollster.com's week-long series on his new book, Dispatches from the War Room. Greenberg is chairman and CEO of Greenberg Quinlan Rosner.

Kristen starts with a key piece of the role of pollster -- keeping elites and elected officials "in-touch" with people; a reality check. Lost in all the talk about politicians with their fingers to the wind is how hard it is for the voter to get heard amidst the lobbyists, experts, bureaucrats, donors and more. If there is a problem to solve, that's not a bad one to address.

I really share Kristen's frustration with the search for the "silver bullet" -- particularly a word or phrase -- when the "silver bullet" is really have a theory of the race, knowing why you are running, defining the choice in a way that really impacts people's lives. Look what happened when Obama's "change" encountered Clinton's "experience" and coalition of small groups. Clinton lost ground because Obama had the force of what was happening in society and the economy with him. Understanding your times and having a mission puts you in a more powerful electoral position.

I agree that voters not voters not grounded in the current ideological polarization. That's why it hasn't worked to label Clinton a "liberal" in 1996 or Obama in 2008. But that has led to some to say that voters aren't moved by big ideas and political political forces and alignments and they have rushed to advance a bunch of small policies. I think 2008 showed that America is a country moved by big currents and open to big ideas about how to address our problems. I think Obama and McCain debated big philosophical issues and those mattered in how people became engaged and voted.

Dispatches: Trusting What People Say in Polls

This post is part of Pollster.com's week-long series on Stan Greenberg's new book, Dispatches from the War Room.


I'm pleased to join this conversation and to have received Stan Greenberg's book, which is a fascinating insider's look at the way polls were used in five major situations. It's great history by itself, and I would strongly recommend the book to any one at all interested in current events and/or the role of polling consultants in public policy.


I have several comments I would like to make at some point, but this one will focus on one issue raised by Mark Blumenthal and subsequently addressed by Greenberg himself.


Mark pointed to Greenberg's query at one point in the book, where the author asked how much he could trust his own polls on public policy matters. To make it easier for the reader to follow this conversation, I will reproduce what Mark wrote:


...the most candid observation from the book concerns Greenberg's admission that his focus groups and polls misled him on the question of whether Israeli voters would ever accept a division of Jerusalem. At first, two-thirds of voters in his surveys said "it was unacceptable to have a Palestinian state with its capital in East Jerusalem." When Greenberg "saw no movement" when he presented arguments for the division in surveys, and voters "nearly cried" in focus groups, insisting that dividing Jerusalem would be "like taking away your beloved child," Greenberg advised his client that such a policy was a "dead end." [emphasis added]


Yet four weeks after Ehud Barak put that option on the bargaining table at Camp David, despite a negative approval rating and strong opposition in parliament, a majority of Israelis were ready to "go with him" on Jerusalem in Greenberg's polling. Thus Greenberg raises a critical question:


If I cannot believe what people tell me is unacceptable in my surveys on Jerusalem, then what of my findings on other subjects? Why can't a determined leader change these too?


Greenberg's question about the changeability of public opinion is an important one, because much of what polls present to us today are measures of public opinions that appear to be firm - when in fact we know that for many people, polls measure only the most ephemeral of views. What's lacking in most polls are any measures of intensity.


My question to Greenberg would be how intensely did the poll respondents feel about the "unacceptable" response they gave to the interviewers? Greenberg gives no indication that he measured it, though he did get an idea of intensity in the focus groups when participants "nearly cried" about the proposed division of Jerusalem.


Still, as we know, focus groups are poor indicators of general public opinion. The people who are willing to participate are no doubt more engaged in issues than people who can't be bothered (or paid) to participate, and the focus group experience itself can be intense - making the participants completely unrepresentative of the general population.


Greenberg is, of course, quite aware of such limits, readily acknowledging them in his book. Still, as we all know, it's very difficult to ignore numbers and visceral experiences even when we know they are technically unrepresentative of the larger population. The high emotion of the focus group participants could well have made it seem impossible that voters at large could change their minds.


In a series of experiments that Jeff Jones and I designed while I was at Gallup,[1] we discovered that on any given issue about 40 percent to 60 percent of the public had a "permissive" opinion. Though many people may have initially expressed a preference for a policy (saying that they either favored or opposed it), those with a "permissive" opinion then admitted (in response to a follow-up question) that they would not be "upset" if the government did the opposite of what they had just said. This does not mean that later on, once a policy has been implemented, those same people will not hold the leaders accountable if it doesn't work. But it does mean that political leaders have tremendous leeway in what they initially decide to do.


And it also means that on most public policy issues, leaders can probably do pretty much what they want to without being held accountable.


Greenberg refers to that phenomenon when he talks about the importance of public opinion to legislators (p. 395). "The fundamental lesson is that people matter because elections matter. You could only think otherwise if you haven't spent any time close to elected officials or candidates for office...The antics of the Republicans in Washington over the past decade seemed to challenge that presumption when they ignored overwhelming public sentiment on Clinton's impeachment, taxes, and the Iraq war, and escaped accountability at the polls."


What I'm suggesting here is that the "overwhelming public sentiment" described by Greenberg was not, in fact, overwhelming. The polls are misleading us. Such sentiments as Greenberg mentions may be widespread, but thinly anchored. And whether we like it or not, from a democratic point of view, it means that politicians can often get away with ignoring what appears to be a public consensus.


The Iraq War is a good example, though on the opposite side of the issue from what Greenberg is discussing. Did Americans "overwhelmingly" support the war before President Bush launched it? The polls all said yes, by about two-to-one margins or greater. And it would appear that most Democratic Senators, who might have been expected to oppose the war, were influenced by these polls to support the war resolution. But Jeff Jones and I discovered that after measuring intensity on that issue, in fact the public was evenly divided - three in ten strongly supporting the war, three in ten strongly opposed, and a plurality - four in ten - with a "permissive" opinion (not upset either if the United States went to war or didn't go to war). How different the political climate in Washington might have been had this picture of public opinion prevailed, instead of the erroneous depiction of a public hankering for war.


While Gallup has not measured intensity on this issue recently (nor have other pollsters), I suspect that even when it comes to withdrawing troops - which Bush refused to do - the public is more divided than unified. The point is that the public is much more in the middle of an issue, and thus willing to defer to its leaders, than the polls tell us, because most polls ignore the intensity with which people hold their poll-expressed views.


In the conclusion to his book, Greenberg writes that despite his ability, post hoc, to explain why his poll results about Jerusalem might have misled him (p. 422),


...it does not change the question I now must face whenever I see a survey result that sets such dramatic limits on what is possible. How do you know that people will not rethink their starting points? How do you know they will not be moved by a deliberative process that thinks about the problem in new ways?...How do you know you won't discourage a less fearless leader from chancing to be bold?


I do not have an answer to this question, other than to constantly remind myself that opinion is changeable, that I must always simulate changing circumstances, and that I should be wary of telling a leader the public will not join him or her in this.


Like Greenberg, I think there is a much larger portion of the public in the middle of any given issue than might be at first assumed - and that we find reflected in most current polls. It's a point that Kristen Soltis makes in a different way when she praises Morris Fiorina's Culture War?: The Myth of a Polarized Electorate.


In a follow-up commentary about Greenberg's book, Blumenthal  wrote that "public opinion will ultimately limit or control the extent to which policy makers can affect change and achieve their goals, and a wise wonk will want to study public opinion -- both as it exists now and where political leaders can move it in the future."


But political leaders need realistic measures of such opinion. Crucial to that goal is measuring not only the direction of the public's preference, but the intensity with which people hold their views - and thus their potential willingness to be influenced by their political leaders.


Greenberg's Dispatches is a testament to the importance of this dimension of public opinion so often ignored by our major media polls.



[1] David W. Moore and Jeffrey M. Jones, "Permissive Consensus: Toward A New Paradigm for Policy Attitude Research," revision of a paper presented at the annual meeting of the American Association for Public Opinion Research, May 16-19, 2002.


US: National Survey (FOX-2/17-18)

FOX News / Opinion Dynamics
2/17-18/09; 900 registered voters, 3% margin of error
Mode: Live Telephone Interviews


Obama Job Approval
60% Approve, 26% Disapprove

Congressional Job Approval
All: 39% Approve, 50% Disapprove
Dems: 46, 45
Reps: 34, 56

Obama Favorable Rating
68% Favorable, 25% Unfavorable

How confident are you that the new Obama administration will be able to make significant positive change for the country?

    64% Confident
    33% Not confident

Overall, how would you rate the quality of the people President Obama has selected to be in his Cabinet?

    17% Excellent
    40% Good
    23% Fair
    16% Poor

(story, results)

Dispatches: Are Media Polls Criminally Bad?

This post is part of Pollster.com's week-long series on Stan Greenberg's new book, Dispatches from the War Room.


Stan Greenberg's book is a "good read" from both a political and a polling perspective and I know fellow junkies will find it rewarding. But I want to start a conversation over a strong claim Greenberg makes on page 58 about the quality of polling. I'll quote the full paragraph, but interspersing my comments as we go.

The endgame in presidential campaigns brings out all sorts of irrationalities, starting with the media polls. Many are criminally bad.

Ok, that's provocative and got my attention. How so?

Some are done in one night with no time for callbacks and thus over-represent people who are easily reached by phone, often seniors.

In principle this is a problem but in practice not so much. Of 543 national polls in Pollster.com's data for 2008, only 6 have a one day field period, with another 76 having two days of interviewing. That's 15% which isn't trivial but certainly isn't representative of most polling. The most common field period in our data was 3 days, with 230 polls, and another 115 that did 4 days on interviewing. That's 64% of polls. At the state level there is more single day polling, a lot of it done by IVR (or "Robo-polls") which are still controversial in the polling profession. Of 1791 state polls in our data, 472 were done in a single day, or 26%. Another 204 were done in two days, for a combined share of 38%. So the complaint here is fairly well justified for state polls but not so much for national polling.

Greenberg continues:

They are not carefully weighted and, as a result, show wide swings in voter preference that the media interpret wrongly as voter fickleness.

I'd be curious what constitutes careless weighting. Almost all pollsters weight the data to demographic distributions derived from the Current Population Survey (a huge monthly government survey with over 90% response rate and therefore considered particularly reliable.) Pollsters might differ on some technical issues here but it is hard to believe that media polls are that different from Greenberg's own methods. None of the weighting techniques are in any way secret-- just buy a textbook on survey sampling or read the journals or attend panels at AAPOR (the pollsters conference) and the variety of options are all right there in the public domain. So there is little reason to think that variation in weighting practice is due to either secret knowledge that Greenberg and colleagues have that is unavailable to others, or that "media pollsters" systematically choose to be reckless by using poor weighting schemes. The one controversial area of weighting is whether to weight the data to some specific party identification distribution, derived either from past polling or from exit polls (which are themselves suspect on this, but I digress.) I don't know what Greenberg's position is on this, or if that is what he is referring to in this paragraph.

I would, however, strongly agree with the implication of the end of the sentence, that media interpretations of polling variation is far too quick to present random sampling noise as "real change" and to let that noise drive the narrative. I might disagree that this is a function of weighting, but I think this point is certainty right.

Continuing in the paragraph:

And they usually ask the respondent only for whom they will vote without any prior questions that build trust. With people reluctant to tell a stranger for whom they will vote without being warmed up, many of the media polls report an inflated number of undecided voters.

I think a review of the major network and newspaper polls will show that the vote question appears early in the survey, but very rarely as the first question and never the only question. This does however raise a valuable point of legitimate disagreement among pollsters: Is it better to remind a voter of a variety of issues and considerations about the candidates through your survey before asking the vote question, or is it better to get the vote response early before you have "primed" the respondent to be thinking of particular issues. For example, at Wisconsin an ongoing survey in the 1990s asked about the state of the economy as the warmup items, then asked presidential approval. We switched that to ask initial questions about interest in politics and attention to news as the warmups to avoid priming the respondents to think of the economy before they thought about presidential approval. Now some, perhaps Greenberg, would argue that asking a series of questions about current politics before the approval question (or vote in an election survey) is actually a good thing because those are the considerations voters are likely to carry with them to the polls. Others would point to evidence that the questions you prime will have greater influence over approval or vote response than questions that might matter to voters but which you happen not to bring up. I'd be interested in hearing more from Greenberg about his view of this debate.

Finally the paragraph concludes:

Worst of all, a poll that shows a result sharply different from all the others gets media attention because the difference is "news" when it is likely the result of normal sampling fluctuations or careless polling practices.

Amen! Our efforts to detect polling outliers and label them as such is an attempt to reduce the attention paid to these fluctuations. But outliers happen to every polling organization. If they don't then the pollsters are fiddling with the data in suspect ways, since sampling theory says you will produce a statistical outlier 5% of the time. If you don't then you are cheating, not being "better". The problem for journalists and public interpreters of polls is not to get rid of outliers or suppress their publication, but to recognize them as such and give an appropriate interpretation.

My bottom line is that polling techniques and methodology are "open source." Take classes in grad school and you can learn all the theory. Work in a polling firm and you'll also learn a lot of practical wisdom. Survey professionals all have access to this. Greenberg may well think that his polls are superior to those conducted by others, but I'd disagree that this has anything to do with secret knowledge or methods. I'd also question the implicit claim that campaign pollsters are better at conducting polls than are media pollsters. I am more sympathetic to a claim that campaign pollsters or advisors on policy as Greenberg's book illustrates, may be able to craft surveys that get at the ability of politicians to shape public response through how they talk about issues. Media (and academic) polls are seldom focused on this, and in that way are arguably more limited. That is a very interesting discussion that perhaps we can move on to.

Dispatches: Thoughts From A Young Pollster

Topics: consultants , ideology , Pollsters , public opinion , strategy , tactics

This post is part of Pollster.com's week-long series on Stan Greenberg's new book, Dispatches from the War Room.

Perhaps the two most appropriate topics for the young Republican pollster participating in this discussion are 1)the idea that younger consultants are more tactics-focused and that 2)the role of ideology hand in hand with opinion research that guides the creation of a public agenda. I'll attempt to give my thoughts on each.

First, I truly appreciate Greenberg's defense of the role of the pollster in advising leaders and participating in the cultivation of public support for policy goals. The Bush Administration was not the first political operation to proudly declare they aren't looking to polls to set their agenda, nor will they be the last. But Greenberg is spot on in noting that in a democratic society, gaining the trust and support of the people is essential to effective governance.

When I explain "what pollsters do" to acquaintances and family members who are not closely familiar with what pollsters do (besides call them during dinner time), I like to say that we are the "reality check".

In the case of pollsters, we are a special group of intermediaries between Americans and their leaders. Constituent mail, phone calls...these things show what the most activated pieces of the public are thinking. Democratic elections may be the purest expressions of public opinion between a public and its leaders. But it is the job of a pollster to provide an accurate and representative picture of what the electorate is thinking in the mean time. We provide the reality check. There's a lot of talk about "inside the Beltway thinking" - as a pollster, we get to be the antidote. If my work as a pollster enhances a leader's connection to the electorate and helps those in Washington maintain a focus on the important priorities of the people who elected them, I can feel good about what I've done.

A disturbing trend I've noticed however is a trend toward finding the "silver bullet", the very tactical focus that Greenberg references in particular relation to younger consultants. There is an idea that has been made popular by some pollsters that all you need are the right words...that an idea, regardless of that idea's merit, can gain traction with the public and can become the Next Big Thing if only the right alliterative device is used to name and define the problem. The right words and rhetorical gimmicks will win over the public, regardless of the merits of the policy.

This isn't just in the polling/messaging/strategy realm. I've seen the belief that the right piece of opposition research or the right witty negative ad is all that is needed for victory. And so these tactics are the focus, because they are exciting, they provide the "thrill" of the game that Greenberg mentions. I'm heartened to read that Greenberg identifies the importance of a bigger vision, the importance of issues and sound policy, and his reference to V.O. Key's quote that "voters are not fools". Today, that belief still remains unorthodox in too many places in the world of the political consultancy.

What is missing all too often is the idea that polling can help cultivate public support by focusing on those big ideas. Another way I like to think of a good pollster is like a debate coach. So you as a leader have decided to pursue a specific policy goal. What are the best arguments to use to build support? Note, I'm using the term "arguments". Not words. Not to diminish the importance of framing, but I believe a pollster is far more effective when helping to craft arguments that are sound and intelligent. There's a big difference between good positioning and gimmicks. Pollsters should be in the business of the former, not the latter.

Where I'll disagree with Greenberg slightly is in his criticism of some other contemporary pollsters. He cites another pollster's belief in "the not-so-silent majority of Americans who reject ideological soundness in favor of the sound center" and goes on to discuss the problem of pollsters who try to craft tactics (and maybe strategy) without any endgame greater than...well, put simply, winning. Fair enough. But I don't think that a belief that most Americans are not strongly ideological or in search of ideological purity diminishes the role of ideas. I'm an enormous fan of Dr. Morris Fiorina's work in Culture War?: The Myth of a Polarized Electorate where he explores just how large the Big Middle is. And from what I've seen in research I've been a part of, Americans rarely see ideology as the endgame. Americans want outcomes.

My mentor in survey research, David Winston, often says that ideology itself is like a screwdriver. By itself, it's just a screwdriver. Its worth comes from what it can be used for, what outcomes it can create (building a swing set, etc.). I'd venture that the electorate is full of more Americans who are looking for outcomes than processes. And thus the existence of a "big middle" doesn't necessarily mean polling should become focused on the little tactics or the dumbing down of politics. Quite the opposite.

I'd be interested in the comments of the other participants in this forum on the question - to what extent does the size of the "big middle" in American politics help or hinder the ability for politicians to pursue the big ideas?

Dispatches: Greenberg's Response to Lombardo

Topics: Dispatches from the War Room , Stan Greenberg

This guest pollster contribution from Stan Greenberg is part of Pollster.com's week-long series on his new book, Dispatches from the War Room. Greenberg is chairman and CEO of Greenberg Quinlan Rosner.

I think Steve Lombardo makes an important point.  Some elections and some periods invite big choices and political projects, while many do not.  When I raised the issue, I was not so much suggesting what is the best choice in a particular campaign.  Obviously, you will do what works and use the opportunity of the moment to win.  But I was making a self-reflective judgment about my work over a number of decades, and the parallel emergence of polling that was self-consciously tactical, some ideologically centered and some post-ideological.  There is evidence cited in the book that more recent generations of political consultants (p. 423) give greater weight to the thrill of the contest rather than partisan or ideological goals, compared to earlier generations.  I don't think that was just a consequence of diminishing issues in the late 1990s -- as many of them advanced this approach earlier -- e.g., the 1996 Clinton campaign -- and later.

I do think any campaign -- even ones in less tumultuous times and a lower place in the ticket -- will seek to pose a choice that draws on the issue and partisan environment, the candidate's goals and project, and that poses a defining choice with the opponent.  That is strategic and possibly purposeful, regardless of how small bore.  But collectively, pollsters and political consultants elevate the political discourse in the country as they are part of that process.  But where they are opportunistically jumping on tactics or "swing groups" detached from that kind of process, they may well be diminishing the quality of political discourse.

Dispatches: Can Pollsters Influence Policy by Determining Whose Voices Are Heard?

This post is part of Pollster.com's week-long series on Stan Greenberg's new book, Dispatches from the War Room.

I've enjoyed reading through Greenberg's thought-provoking book over the last several days. The exercise has led me to think not just about the relationship between pollsters and their clients, but also about the role of pollsters and political consultants in our democratic system. Greenberg makes an interesting case that pollsters play an integral role in helping to link elected officials to those they govern, and his argument is convincing.


In his lead-off post on Tuesday, Mark referred to V.O. Key's famous definition of public opinion. The quote was familiar for me (and many others, I'm sure) as I use it as a point of departure for my PhD course on political behavior. Key described public opinion as "those opinions held by private citizens which governments find it prudent to heed." I've added the emphasis to the second part of the sentence because I think it is crucial. For Key, "opinions held by private citizens" do not, on their own, rise to the level of public opinion. Rather, only those opinions that capture the attention of political elites can be classified as public opinion. But which attitudes are these? Or, perhaps more to the point, whose attitudes are these?

Greenberg points out in his book that he initially gained notoriety by reporting on his study of white union members in Michigan (p. 19-20). The report caused a "storm" and led to a lot of focus in Democratic circles about how to win back the so-called "Reagan Democrats." The DLC hired Greenberg to gain more insight into how to win over this group and much of Clinton's appeal was his ability to speak to these working class whites. "Reagan Democrats" were suddenly exercising significant influence over how Democrats would campaign and, ultimately, how they would govern.

But time and resources are finite and politics is a zero-sum game. When pollsters draw politicians' attention to groups like "Reagan Democrats," other groups will necessarily get less attention and, therefore, may be less represented in government. Consider this quote from a story by Politico's Avi Zenilman just after the verdict in our most recent election:

"Unions, Hispanic groups, the Netroots, progressive organizing coalitions, single women, working women, youth, the religious left -- to name just a few -- all claim to have played a vital role in electing Barack Obama. And each says he owes them for that role."

These groups are actively lobbying for elected officials to notice their importance in the last election because they understand that being viewed in that light will lead to more influence over government. But it strikes me that pollsters may have a special role in telling their clients which of these groups have the most valid claims and should be paid special attention to.

This brings me back to how influential the role of a pollster can be during the time between elections. At the end of the book, Greenberg notes that he was always careful to limit his role to reporting on public opinion and avoided devising policy prescriptions (as Clinton himself said, "he wouldn't tell me what to do"). This suggests a relatively innocuous role for a pollster--one that is merely informational. However, if pollsters play a key role in identifying particular groups--"swing voters" or otherwise--that politicians should be particularly concerned with, then doesn't their role become far more influential? After all, the voters that politicians think they need to appeal to will likely have a major influence on the types of policies those politicians promote. By choosing to shine the spotlight on some groups, don't pollsters (and ultimately their clients) leave other groups in the dark?

So I'm interested in hearing the extent to which Greenberg thinks that his role as a pollster was influential simply by identifying some groups as "swing voters" but not others. There are so many different ways to slice and dice the public to identify the next influential group (whether it be "Reagan Democrats" or "married mums"); does Greenberg see any groups who were largely overlooked by government because they never rose to "swing voter" status? And if he was going to go back out into the country now, as he did after the 1984 election, and focus attention on a particular group of citizens, which group does he think would be most deserving of his attention?

Dispatches: "Politics of Purpose" vs. "Tactics?"

Topics: Dispatches from the War Room , Pollsters , Stan Greenberg

This post is part of Pollster.com's week-long series on Stan Greenberg's new book, Dispatches from the War Room.

I find the whole debate between the "politics of purpose" versus "tactics" to be a pretty silly one. There are several strategic factors that will drive a campaign to be about either big or small things, including the overall mood of the public, the ideological perspective of the candidate (or lack thereof), the distinctions between the two parities on key issues (or lack thereof) and the political skills of the candidate. Ideally, you want to have an election over big philosophical differences in which you can highlight your candidate in a favorable light. I applaud Stan for wanting to be involved with politicians and campaigns that are about watershed issues and seminal ideas but the reality is that most are not.

The fact that pollsters like Dick Morris (and many, many others) moved to tactics during a time when there were few big issues is not only unsurprising but probably the right thing to do. During much of the 1990s there were few perceptible ideological or issue differences between the two parties and pollsters had to look "micro." This, of course, changed around 2005 and had become a chasm by 2008, and just about everyone--with the possible exception of Mark Penn--realized it.

Update: Greenberg responds here. Follow the complete series here.

US: National Survey (AP-2/12-17)

2/12-17/09; 1,001 adults; 3.1% margin of error
Mode: Live Telephone Interviews


State of Country
40% Right Direction, 49% Wrong Track

Obama Job Approval
67% Approve, 37% Disapprove

Congressional Job Approval
31% Approve, 21% Disaprove

Job Approval - Economy
Obama: 68% Approve, 27% Disapprove
Dems in Congress: 49%, 45%
Reps in Congress: 33%, 59%

Do you favor or oppose the new economic stimulus package of nearly $800 billion in government spending and tax cuts?

    52% Favor
    41% Oppose

How confident are you that such a stimulus package would work to bring about significant improvements in the U.S. economy? Are you very confident, somewhat confident, not too confident, or not at all confident?

    54% Confident
    45% Not Confident

Thinking about the financial rescue package that was approved by Congress last year to help stabilize banks and the financial industry, do you think that rescue package...

    16% Succeeded in preventing even more serous damage to the economy
    32% Did even more damage to the economy than would have happened otherwise
    47% Had no real effect on the condition of the economy

(story, results)

Dispatches: Warning Signs for Obama?

Topics: Dispatches from the War Room , Pollsters , Stan Greenberg

[This post is part of Pollster.com's week-long series on Stan Greenberg's new book, Dispatches from the War Room].

First, a quick status report: At least two and possibly three of my colleagues here at Pollster are working up posts on the Greenberg book today, but as they do have day jobs it looks like most will not post until sometime this evening (East Coast time).   

Second, I want to add one thought to my introductory post yesterday in response to the comment from reader "Moderate2008." I am not arguing that a pollster's job is to "make public policy." My point is that public opinion will ultimately limit or control the extent to which policy makers can affect change and achieve their goals, and a wise wonk will want to study public opinion -- both as it exists now and where political leaders can move it in the future. In that sense I agree with Moderate2008 that a pollster's primary job is to analyze the data "with competence and without bias," leaving policy makers in a better position to achieve their goals. I  will let Greenberg speak for himself on this, but my sense from from Dispatches is that he agrees.


Third, since I still have the floor, let me throw another question Stan's way (on a subject that at least one of my Pollster colleagues may probe more specifically later tonight):

One of the lessons Stan reports from his experience electing Clinton, Mandela, Blair, Barak and Sanchez de Lozada is that the "sense of triumph on election day almost always obscured political weakness." Examples include Clinton winning with only 43% of the vote, Sanchez de Lozada with only 23%, Barak having to cobble together a majority government that "failed to provide a working majority for any part of his agenda," Blair's Labor government taking the reigns with "no experience running anything," and so on.

Question is, looking forward, do you have any warnings for Democrats about any political weakness obscured by the headiness of Barack Obama's victory?'

PS: Yesterday I neglected to remind readers of my prior relationship with the author. I worked from 1990 to 1991 at Stan Greenberg's company -- then known Greenberg-Lake: The Analysis Group -- as a senior analyst to his then partner Celinda Lake. By chance, I left the company on the very day he announced that he would be working for Bill Clinton in 1992. In other words, I left just as the heart of the story told in Dispatches begins.

FL: 2010 Sen, Gov (Quinnipiac-2/11-16)

Quinnipiac University
2/11-16/09; 1,001 registered voters, 3.1% margin of error
433 registered Republicans (4.7%), 367 registered Democrats (5.1%)
Mode: Live Telephone Interviews


Favorable / Unfavorable
Kenrick Meek (D): 12 / 6
Ron Klein (D): 12 / 5
Dan Gelber (D): 4 / 4
Pam Iorio (D): 17 / 5
Marco Rubio (R): 12 / 18
Vern Buchanan (R): 17 / 10
Allan Bense (R): 8 / 9
Connie Mack IV (R): 34 / 13
Gov. Charlie Crist (R): 68 / 21

Job Approval:
Gov. Crist: 67 / 22

'10 Senate Democratic Primary
16% Iorio, 16% Meek, 14% Klein, 5% Gelber

'10 Senate Republican Primary
34% Mack, 11% Buchanan, 6% Rubio, 4% Bense
53% Crist, 13% Mack, 5% Buchanan, 3% Rubio, 2% Bense

'10 Governor General Election
48% Crist, 25% Generic Dem


Dispatches: Greenberg's Response to Blumenthal

Topics: Dispatches from the War Room , Pollsters , Stan Greenberg

Today's guest pollster contribution comes from Stan Greenberg, chairman and CEO of Greenberg Quinlan Rosner. He will be discussing his new book, Dispatches from the War Room all week on Pollster.com.

I very much appreciate Pollster.com hosting this discussion of the book and Mark's introductory note that raises central issues.

Let me underline one point that is at the heart of the book and then address the two key questions raised by Mark.

I started the book with columnist Joe Klein's assertion that the polling-media industrial complex diminishes politics, leaders; it makes them less bold and more risk averse. I wasn't sure he wasn't right, if you can excuse the double negative.

And as you can see, I'm pretty critical of trends in polling and critical of some of my own choices, which we can discuss.

But, I come out of this believing that strong political leaders build a special bond with people, rather than flying in the face of it. Strong leadership is not defying the public, but engaging with it -- using support to get things done; mobilizing the public, educating the public on challenges and goals and working to shift opinion. I look at the example of Lincoln and Franklin Roosevelt who were both intensely solicitous of public opinion. Engaging with the public was a precondition for boldness. That contrasts with Bush and Cheney who thought they were strong because they pursued bold policies, never guided by polls and focus groups, but I think we can look now at the consequences. President Obama's special bond with people is part of his leadership but he will struggle like these leaders to keep people with him and enhance his chances of success. That makes for stronger and more democratic leadership and produce greater civic engagement. I'm not making a partisan point -- only the case for strong leadership that is solicitous of public opinion.

Mark raised two issues.

First was tactics. Yes, all campaigns are tactical but divorced from a political project, it becomes just a game and our techniques risk diminishing politics, as Klein suggested.

Example. Reassurance. Bill Clinton reassured voters by his commitment to "end welfare as we know it," support for death penalty, and commitment to cut middle class taxes. That is tactical. But with voters more comfortable about Clinton's values and how he would use government, they now were much more supportive of his bigger agenda for investing to create sustainable growth, investing in people and education, and allowing all to have health insurance. The reassurance built support for the main project, thus a strategy.

Tony Blair reassured by promising not to raise taxes and to not increase the budget over the next two years -- and that allowed voters to support him so that would invest in public services, particularly health care and education.

But when Dick Morris advised President Clinton, he relished "stealing" the Republicans' issues -- like welfare reform -- to make the Republicans irrelevant, not to advance Clinton's larger vision. Here it becomes a game and diminishes politics.

And then there is Jerusalem. My conclusion from that is that pollsters need to be unbelievably careful about assuming current attitudes are static or can't be changed. Political pollsters should not be focused on depicting current thinking, but instead, on searching for the underlying dynamism. Even strongly, deeply emotional positions can give way -- if leaders with authority in certain areas are committed their educative roles.

Remember, we also said in Bolivia that proceeding with the export of natural gas would lead to violent opposition and that voter opinions could not be moved on this deeply emotional issue. The president there was determined to make this bold move and ultimately was forced from office, as violence grew in the country.

So, Jerusalem is a lesson but so is La Paz.

[Follow the complete series here]

US: Congress Job (Gallup-2/9-12)

2/9-12/09; 1,022 adults, 3% margin of error
Mode: Live Telephone Interviews


Congressional Job Approval
31% Approve, 61% Disapprove

Greenberg's Dispatches from the War Room

Topics: Dispatches from the War Room , Stan Greenberg

About a week ago, Armando Lorens took me to task, in part, for looking at how the ongoing economic stimulus debate might affect Barack Obama's job approval rating. The time for a "polling argument," he wrote, is not now but "as elections approach, when results [of policy] are evaluated." Too many people like me, he added "can not see past the day to day gyrations of the polling trees and miss the policy (and eventually, political) forest."


His argument is one of the more popular critiques of public opinion polling. Polls are interesting just before elections, but should stay far away from policy. Leaders should make policy without regard to the whims of public opinion, or so the argument goes, crafting the best policy, ignoring and polls and letting the results speak for themselves at the next election. "Good policy is good politics."

The problem with the argument is that elected officials, like the rest of us, tend to be self-interested. They want to win the next election. Moreover, in constitutional governments, leaders must win support from legislatures or hold together parliamentary majorities. So whether we like it or not, public opinion -- or perhaps more accurately, the way leaders perceive public opinion -- ultimately acts as a control on policy options. Consider the way V.O. Key, one of the most influential political scientists of the last century, defined the term "public opinion," in his 1961 book, Public Opinion and American Democracy (as cited by Donald R. Kinder in The Handbook of Social Psychology , p. 780):

[T]hose opinions held by private citizens which governments find it prudent to heed. Governments may be compelled toward action or inaction by such opinion; in other instances they may ignore it, perhaps at their peril; they may attempt to alter it, or they may divert and pacify it.

That conflict is in many ways the central theme of Stan Greenberg's new memoir Dispatches from the War Room, which serves as an extended history of how five leaders -- Bill Clinton, Nelson Mandela, Tony Blair, Ehud Barak and Gonzalo "Goni" Sanchez de Lozado -- navigated the waters of public opinion in their campaigns and in government.

Dispatches is different from typical pollster books, which tend toward analyses of their data, prescriptions for how "our side can win," thinly veiled efforts to market their services, or some combination of these. Dispatches is most memorable for Greenberg's effort to convey the human side of his role: What it was like, for example, to attain the pinnacle of professional success in helping Bill Clinton win the White House in 1992 only to be fired two years later, replaced by Dick Morris and Mark Penn. What was it like to play a similar role to Tony Blair in 1997 and 2001, only to be shunted aside (again for Penn at the urging, he says, of Bill and Hillary Clinton) in 2005?

The new book will be our focus this week as Greenberg himself joins in for an extended dialogue that will include the other contributors to this site and, of course, your comments. It should be interesting.

To kick it off, I want to start with Greenberg's thesis that all five leaders pursued a "politics of purpose" for which public support was essential. Each of these leaders, he writes, "deserve our respect precisely because they are consumed with people and popular support." Each had a political "project," a mission beyond their own electoral success, and close attention to public opinion was critical to the success at that project.

Each used polling to determine if the people were with them, increasing the prospects for actually doing what they set out to do. And as they drove forward on the mission, they used polling to look back over their shoulder to see of the populace was following, if the battalions were marching with them. They were consumed with keeping or building support for the mission, particularly at the time of key legislative or parliamentary battles and as they faced the looming judgement of the voters in reelection (p. 403).

In addition to this defense of the work that pollsters do, Greenberg's lessons include some tough critiques. I want to ask about two of them.

First, he wonders whether the "politics of purpose" is giving way to "mere tactics...a focus on the game, the tactics and winning outside of the idea of a political, partisan, or ideological project." He provides as examples, the work of political consultants like Frank Luntz and Dick Morris, whose "whole premise" is "the 'end of ideology' -- the end of big political projects, big issues, or strong party affinities -- as the new reality."

My question: Isn't the politics of "mere tactics" always part of the process at some level? My experience is that all politicians are a mix of ambitions to accomplish something and be something. In some, however, the desire to hold and maintain public office is paramount, and they are often the most likely to chase any tactic or policy that serves that end. Those actors are always present -- in campaigns, legislatures and executive offices -- and to the extent that they hold power, their motives must be considered by nobler colleagues chasing bigger accomplishments. Moreover, as Greenberg explains, even the heros of this book sometimes resort to "mere tactics" to secure reelection. After all, both Clinton and Blair turned to Penn, whose pursuit of "soccer moms" and "married mums" (respectively) define the sort of tactical politics that Greenberg condemns.

Second, the most candid observation from the book concerns Greenberg's admission that his focus groups and polls mislead him on the question of whether Israeli voters would ever accept a division of Jerusalem. At first, two-thirds of voters in his surveys said "it was unacceptable to have a Palestinian state with its capital in East Jerusalem." When Greenberg "saw no movement" when he presented arguments for the division in surveys, and voters "nearly cried" in focus groups, insisting that dividing Jerusalem would be "like taking away your beloved child." Greenberg advised his client that such a policy was a "dead end."

Yet four weeks after Ehud Barak put that option on the bargaining table at Camp David, despite a negative approval rating and strong opposition in parliament, a majority of Israelis were ready to "go with him" on Jerusalem in Greenberg's polling. Thus Greenberg raises a critical question:

If I cannot believe what people tell me is unacceptable in my surveys on Jerusalem, then what of my findings on other subjects? Why can't a determined leader change these too?

Perhaps the lesson is that pollsters should never say never. We learn that lesson with regard to "statistical significance" and sampling error (which is always about probabilities). Why not extend that idea to the more complex issues of measurement and interpretation: ,We are never absolutely certain of anything. The best we can do is sort out the relative difficulties of persuasion. On some issues, voters are open and easily moved. On other issues, only leaders with exceptional "bully pulpits" acting in truly extraordinary circumstances will change minds. Barak knew that his choice involved enormous risks, but he made it anyway. Obviously, Greenberg regrets his "dead end" advice, but otherwise, he advised Barak correctly that a divided Jerusalem would be the biggest obstacle to public acceptance of an accord in Israel. Isn't that what Barak was paying him for?

This last issue is in many ways the most important question raised by Greenberg's new book. What is your answer?

Update: Greenberg responds here. Follow the complete series here. Also, interest disclosed: I worked from 1990 to 1991 at Stan Greenberg's company -- then known Greenberg-Lake: The Analysis Group -- as a senior analyst to his then partner Celinda Lake.  By chance, my last day at the company was the same day he announced he would be working for Bill Clinton in 1992.

IL: 2010 Sen, Gov (Tribune-2/4-5)

Chicago Tribune / Market Shares Corp
2/4-5/09; 500 registered voters, 4.4% margin of error
Mode: Live Telephone Interviews


Favorable / Unfavorable
Gov. Pat Quinn: 49 / 6
Sen. Roland Burris: 34 / 18

Run For Re-Election: Yes / No
Gov. Quinn: 48 / 15
Sen. Burris: 37 / 33


NY: 2010 Gov, Sen (Quinnipiac-2/10-15)

Quinnipiac University
2/10-15/09; 1,065 registered voters, 3% margin of error
450 registered Democrats, 4.6% margin of error
Mode: Live Telephone Interviews

New York

Favorable / Unfavorable
Andrew Cuomo (D): 63 / 15
Gov. David Paterson (D): 41 / 35
Rudy Giuliani (R): 56 / 35
Kirsten Gillibrand (D): 24 / 9
Carolyn McCarthy (D): 24 / 9
Peter King (R): 21 / 10

Job Approval
Gov. Paterson: 45 / 41
Sen. Gillibrand: 28 / 10
Sen. Schumer: 64 / 24

'10 Governor Democratic Primary
Cuomo 55%, Gov. Paterson 23%

'10 Governor General Election
Gov. Paterson 43%, Giuliani 43%
Cuomo 51%, Giuliani 37%

'10 Senate Democratic Priamry
McCarthy 34%, Sen. Gillibrand 24%

'10 Senate General Election
Gillibrand 42%, King 26%