An Appreciation by an 'Original Customer' (Winter 2013 Trust Magazine)

Author: E.J. Dionne Jr.


03/08/2013 - The polling world has produced many giants, but no one like Andy Kohut. And no one has created an institution like the Pew Research Center.

If you are a journalist, Andy is a habit you never shake. Why should you? He likes his numbers straight, his data bulletproof, his questions unbiased and clear.

If you are a lover of polls, you know that Andy is Diogenes-like in thinking that we’re all better off if we can get the facts right and as close to the truth as social science will get you. And if you want someone to work with, Andy is your guy. I am no fan of meetings, but in my time with the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life, meetings with Andy and his colleagues were a joy. It’s fun to watch him try to solve a problem, and make sure that his approach is right. And you always learn things at Andy’s meetings, especially the ones dedicated to putting together a new poll. There is no wasted time, no ego-driven argument, no bureaucratic formality. The purpose is to get at the best survey questions, to ask them in the clearest and least loaded way, to avoid repetition where possible—but also to be willing to get at the same issue with several questions if that’s the only way to make sure you don’t miss a dimension of how citizens come to terms with complicated issues.

Perhaps at this point I should confess a bias of my own, in keeping with the sort of transparency Andy likes. I have known Andy for more than three decades and began relying on him when I was in my 20s. The earliest quotation I could find from him in one of my stories was in a 1980 New York Times article about whether polls should be used to determine who gets to participate in a presidential debate. Andy, who was then the president of Gallup, didn’t like polls being used that way, and his reasoning produced a classic Kohut sound bite that really gets at how he thinks.

"This is a prime case," he said, "of polls being institutionalized, becoming part of the process instead of measuring its output." Two things about that quotation, the first being that word "institutionalized." Andy is a great institution-builder, but he thinks of himself as an independent outsider unencumbered by obligations that might get in the way of the correct answer. And his purpose is not to be "part of the process." He really sees "measuring its output" as a sufficiently important and honorable role.

I also think of myself as the original customer of Andy’s political typology business. He has used factor-analysis and other statistical techniques to describe the electorate not in the usual left/right, Republican/Democratic terms, but as a series of smaller groups that tell you more about how voters actually think. And he had great names for them: The "upbeats" was my favorite, and there were the "moralists," the "disaffecteds," the "enterprisers," and many others. The changing terms of the public debate could be measured by the new groups Andy discovered and the old ones that faded away.

With the proliferation of surveys, consumers aren’t always certain about what they’re getting, and the 2012 election sometimes seemed just an excuse for people to argue about polls. But Andy, as the Jesuits like to say, just kept doing what he was doing. Several friends have asked me why I was so certain at the end that President Barack Obama was going to win. I offered all sorts of reasons that I hoped sounded learned, but eventually got to the real source of my confidence—Andy’s last poll showed Obama three points ahead with the trends moving his way. And the one thing I was sure of was this: Andy never gets it wrong.

E.J. Dionne Jr. is a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and a columnist for The Washington Post.

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