Polling the Pollster
Scott W. Rasmussen, CEO of Rasmussen Reports, wasn’t always the fact-doling pollster you see on cable TV. On a recent stop in Maine he talked about his career path, the changing landscape of polling, and what Governor LePage has to do to win the people’s trust.
When, after just one year on the national scene, Rasmussen Reports was dead-on with the outcome of the 2004 presidential election, it got people’s attention. When their polls were the first to predict Obama’s edge over Clinton, and was spot-on again in the 2008 presidential race, competitors winced. And when Rasmussen polls were the first to show possible upsets by Scott Brown in Massachusetts and Chris Christie in New Jersey, their place as one of America’s most reliable polling firms was undeniable.
Scott Rasmussen [pronounced RASS-muh-sen], the firm’s founder, CEO, and front man, seems to take this success with a humility that is uncommon for someone who spends so much time in front of a camera.
Rasmussen, who cofounded ESPN in the late ’70s with his father, Bill Rasmussen, attributes his ability to stay grounded to his roots on the New Jersey coast, where he spent his summers at the Ocean Grove Camp Meeting Association, “God’s square mile at the Jersey Shore.” While the self-described independent pollster makes no public affiliations of either political party or religious creed, it’s obvious from his books, especially In Search of Self-Governance, that he answers to a higher power.
In the workplace, that higher power is apparently the people who depend on his polls. Rasmussen churns out polls daily, on everything from consumer confidence to banning energy drinks to whether people blame Obama or Bush more for the poor economy. (The answer is Bush.) These polls give Rasmussen plenty of statistics to rattle off at his speaking engagements, like his recent appearance at a Maine Heritage Policy Center luncheon in South Portland. There he told the audience that, in spite of the recent Republican sweep, 6 out of 10 people believe they’ll be disappointed by the GOP by 2012; that only 21% believe our government has the consent of the governed, and that, when you preface a proposed idea with “Congress is thinking of doing this,” the favorability drops by 20%.
Any new public servant interested in keeping his or her ego in check might want to make a daily visit to Rasmussen’s website.
Your polling company feels like it’s been around forever, but you actually founded Rasmussen Reports LLC in 2003. What are some of the good decisions you made that you believe led to its success?
The thing about the world today—especially because we’re an Internet company, we’ve been digital since birth—is you have to follow what your customers are looking for. In our case, the best example of that is we put out a presidential job approval rating every single morning at 9:30. I didn’t think it was going to be that big a deal, but people love to come to it, so you know what? They love it every day, we’ll put it out every day.
And I think the other part of it is, in addition to just listening, we realize that nobody cares about polls. They care about what we poll about, and we never forget that. It’s not about a numbers, geek kind of thing; it’s the story of people’s lives, and what’s going on, and what do your friends and neighbors think, and trying to keep that perspective.
You founded a grassroots research company in 1995. I read that you took published polls and rephrased the questions to see if you got different results. Is that true?
Yeah, one of the earliest things that we did was take a look at the polls that were being asked in traditional ways and show how subtle wording changes could make a difference.
Your website says that you are an independent pollster, but because of your background, I know some people label you as a conservative-leaning pollster. How do you feel about that?
I was brought up loosely as a Republican, but at our family dinner table we talked about the important politics of the New York Giants and the New York Yankees. There was no political discussion in my life growing up. I became a Democrat after Richard Nixon and into the Jimmy Carter era and have been an Independent ever since. I spoke today about how the American people were skeptical about politicians—well, I’m more skeptical. I really do see the core issue as the political class versus mainstream voters. I think that is a much bigger gap than Republican, Democrat, conservative, or liberal.
You talk about that chasm between political elites and mainstream voters in your book Mad as Hell. How do you keep from becoming an elitist? Have you seen other people who were once “regular folk” become elitists through fame?
It’s a problem. Yes, there are people that I know, and I don’t say this judgmentally, especially people who’ve gone into Congress, who went there with the best of intentions and with the best heart, and went . . .
To the dark side?
[Laughs.] To the dark side. But I say that knowing that if I had gone to Congress, I would do the same thing. You just get caught up in the game.
For me, one of the things that helps is living at the Jersey Shore. When I walk outside, nobody talks politics, nobody really cares. I have two sons who are quite good at reminding me of all my failings. I think the other thing for me, especially in the last couple of years that visibility has gotten higher and it’s become more of a challenge, is you really have to work at it. You really have to work at appreciating how lucky you are.
When you started your polling business, I assume you made your living from people hiring you to do polls, but now that you’re a public figure with a brand, do you have to conduct polls on the house just to keep things moving?
Today, our business is a media company. We make money selling advertising and subscriptions and we sell some sponsorships as part of the ad package, but we don’t do work for clients.
What we do is, if you think of an old-line newspaper, they would have an editorial meeting in the morning and they would assign reporters to this or that. We assign a poll. That’s our business. And that transition took place because of the Internet. The Internet was the first part, and then I started going on TV, which drove more traffic to the website, so it just changed everything about how we saw the business. It was a funny path.
People who read your bio will find that you and your dad, Bill Rasmussen, founded ESPN. It’s such a huge enterprise now, but it really had kind of a serendipitous beginning. Can you tell the story?
It started in the late ’70s. We can’t even remember this world anymore—there was only one college football game a weekend—and we couldn’t get the Whalers hockey team on local television. We tried everything; we did closed-circuit broadcasts. Then we heard about this brand new thing called cable; we had a meeting with the cable operators. We had this great idea to show Whalers hockey, UConn basketball, and Bristol Red Sox baseball for the summer, and it was one of the great marketing flops of all time. But along the way, somebody said, “If you’re serious about this, you ought to find out about a satellite.” And through a whole series of unbelievable things, we learned that we could take a signal and send it around the country via satellite for less money than it used to cost to send the same signal around the state of Connecticut via traditional landlines.
We knew there was something there, but we weren’t sure what to do with it. So on August 16, 1978, it was my sister’s 16th birthday, and my dad and I decided to take the day off because we were too frustrated, we had been arguing all morning. We drove down to the Jersey Shore to be with my sister for her birthday—she was staying with my grandparents—and at one point in Waterbury, Connecticut, we were stuck in traffic and I said, “Dad, I don’t care what you do. Show football all weekend, see if I care.” He said, “That’s it! Not football, but sports.” And so that took us another hour before we figured out all sports, all day, every day, and it just took off from there. And over the next twelve and a half months, we raised $100 million, got Anheuser-Busch to sign the largest contract in cable history, and got the NCAA to sign up. The bottom line was we were too stupid to know it couldn’t be done, and we went on the air on September 7, 1979.
Now after you got out of ESPN, you had a sports radio company that was short-lived and failed. What did you learn from that experience?
Oh, you learn more from failure than you learn from success. In that particular case, because of our experience at ESPN, we thought that things could always work, you can always raise enough money to do things. Well, the fact is, that’s not the way the world works and we did not have it adequately capitalized.
You appeared on the Colbert Report this year, and Stephen Colbert started with a funny skit about pollsters putting the thoughts of Americans into a sausage machine and then feeding them back to us. But polls obviously do change behaviors. We just saw it with the election here: When people thought that Libby Mitchell wasn’t going to win, many voted for Eliot Cutler. Can you talk about how polls effect behavior?
The best example of a poll changing a dynamic for this year that I can think of is the Arizona immigration law. When we first were watching the race in Arizona, Governor Jan Brewer was struggling to win her Republican primary. She wasn’t doing very well, and the conventional view in Washington was that that law would be unpopular and would end her political career. We went out the next day and polled in Arizona and then polled nationally and found out that Jan Brewer’s job approval ratings went through the roof. She was now the prohibitive favorite in the Republican primary, she was leading in the general election, and people in Arizona really liked the law, and, oh, by the way, so did 55% of Americans across the country.
Over the next few weeks, a few other polling firms did the same thing and found the same results. It wasn’t so much that it changed public opinion, but it changed the way politicians talked about the issue. All of a sudden they recognized that they were wrong, and so I think it had an impact on the debate. In election campaigns, the only time it really has an impact are circumstances like you’ve described, a three-candidate race where one candidate becomes nonviable. But in two-way races, it usually doesn’t have an effect.
I wonder if the negative polls surrounding the healthcare bill helped create the tea party movement, since people who opposed it realized they weren’t alone.
Well, certainly that’s part of it. The fact that the bailout bill was so hated was part of what triggered the tea party movement. I think that you overstate it when you say the polls deliver that. Polls helped with that, but another thing that helped the tea party grow was social networking. You could put up an invitation to go to a tea party event and people would go there, and that gave that same sense that people weren’t out there by themselves.
Still, I think knowing they were not the only ones who were “mad as hell” made a huge difference.
That’s absolutely true. I believe that the more information that’s out there about public opinion, the better it is for our democracy because it lets people know what’s going on and it helps them to make choices. The Democratic Party in 2009 and 2010 chose to ignore the polls about the healthcare bill and they kept convincing themselves that once it passed, people would love it. Whether it’s the right policy or not is irrelevant; they made a conscious decision to do that and it went in a different direction.
Has early voting changed your business?
Yes. Early voting has changed our business, and cell phones are changing it, and the pace of change is growing faster and faster. Ten or 20 years ago, pollsters complained about answering machines. I wish we had those problems today.
At the simple level, we have to change the questions we ask. We have to start by saying, “Did you vote already?” Then we have to start correlating to make sure that our share of the people who tell us they’ve voted already is reflected in what we see in the official totals. But that’s not perfect either, because some people have mailed in their early ballots, so it adds a whole new level of complexity to what we do.
Early voting not only changes things for us, it changes the way politicians work. I heard this morning in an earlier discussion that Eliot Cutler thinks that early voting cost him the election, and he could very well be right.
The firm that you contract with to do your calls doesn’t use live operators; it uses an automated phone system. How does that change the results, and what are the pros and cons of that approach?
The biggest advantage automated calls have is consistency. Every single night, somebody hears the president’s job approval question. Tonight, we’re polling on do you strongly approve, somewhat approve, somewhat disapprove, or strongly disapprove of President Obama. The person who answers the phone will hear the exact same question, the exact same voice, same nuance, as they heard it on the night that Barack Obama was sworn into office.
So wherever the particular numbers are from a trend point of view, it’s a much stronger way to go about things. There are some who would argue that you can’t get the same kind of response you can on an operator-assisted interview. I don’t believe that. The only thing I think that is really the advantage of the operator-assisted polls is they can do longer surveys—we can’t keep somebody on the phone for 70 or 75 questions—and they can do more open-ended questions.
How will your model change now that people use so many different ways to communicate?
We don’t know what the end result will be. We do know in an earlier, simpler time, everybody used landline phones, they all answered the phone when people called, and life was good for pollsters. That doesn’t exist anymore. We’ve had a couple of elections where it hasn’t mattered that much because it was mostly younger people and they’re not voting as much, and most young adults, whether or not they use landlines, tend to be more supportive of Democrats than their elders, so there were some ways you could make adjustments. But now the number of people who have abandoned landlines is growing.
We’re going to have to find new ways to reach them, and I don’t think there is any way to know what the next phase looks like other than to say that everything you can think of will be tried. There will be polls done on social networks and through email. There will be some in-person mixes, and there will be telephone and cell phone calls and text surveys. We’re trying them all, and over the next couple of election cycles we’ll work them out.
There’s a book called Failing Forward by John Maxwell, which I absolutely love. His basic premise is everybody fails, but it’s how you react to the failure that determines where you go. That’s really the whole story of the whole polling industry. Every election, whether we have good results, bad results—and every election you actually have a mix of both—you go back to all the polls and you see what worked and then you say, “Hmm, in Nevada this year and last time something went wrong, and we’ve had this mix. What is it that we’re missing?” And we make some estimates based on that, and then you begin to test your theory against other states because we have all the data, and then you say, “OK, I think we have a solution, let’s try it in 2012.”
As you know, we have a new governor and a lot of problems to address. Everyone is going to have to get on the same page if we’re going to make progress in improving our economy here. Can polls help?
Certainly polling can help a governor or anybody else identify some of the issues, but that’s not really where the core is. I think the governor will have plenty of people advising him about policies and other things. I think it is the tone that he’s going to have to take to reach out and get more than the 39% that voted for him to support him. Part of that is going to be listening, part of that’s going to be respecting other views, and I don’t mean compromise in a terrible sense, but finding out what it is that can achieve the goals that the people of the state of Maine have. There’s no magic to it.
How did Abraham Lincoln become the leader he was? Well, nobody expected it of him, but he rose to the occasion. How did Ronald Reagan go from barely getting the nomination—I guess he actually got the nomination okay, but being really discredited throughout the campaign in a lot of people’s eyes—to winning the biggest majority we’ve seen in a long time? It’s because of what he did day in and day out for four years and because he had that connection. Finding out how to do that is something, but there is no silver bullet.
I know you’re going to hate this question, but I have to ask it. Who do you think will get the Republican nomination in 2012?
I have no idea who the 2012 nominee will be. I expect it won’t be one of the big front runners, Romney, Huckabee, or Palin; I don’t think it will be Newt Gingrich. I think it will be somebody from a tier down lower who can excite the base and come up with just the right message. And the model is Barack Obama in the sense that everybody expected Hillary Clinton four years ago to be the nominee.
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The Rasmussen File
Born: March 30, 1956, Eglin AFB, Florida
Education: BA from DePauw University, 1986; MBA from Wake Forest University, 1988.
Career Highlights: Coliseum announcer and member of the public relations staff of the New England Whalers, Hartford, Connecticutt, 1975–78; cofounder/executive vice president of ESPN, 1978–79; president, Enterprise Radio, 1980–81; founder, Maricopa Research, 1995–1999; founder, Rasmussen Reports LLC, 2003. Rasmussen appears regularly on CNN, CNBC, Fox News Channel, BBC, and other major news outlets.
Books: A Better Deal: Social Security Choice, 1985; In Search of Self-Governance, 2009; Mad as Hell: How the Tea Party Movement is Fundamentally Remaking our Two-Party System, with Doug Schoen, 2010.
Affiliations: President, board of trustees, Ocean Grove Camp Meeting Association, 2005–present.
Personal: Rasmussen and his wife, Laura, live in Ocean Grove, New Jersey; sons Andrew and Philip are in college.