Marketing the 2010 census with a conservative-friendly face

A scene from a Census Bureau advertisement broadcast during the Super Bowl.
A scene from a Census Bureau advertisement broadcast during the Super Bowl. (Associated Press Via The Census Bureau)
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By Juan Williams
Monday, March 1, 2010

Most recent challenges to the U.S. Census have come from the left, with claims of undercounts of blacks, Hispanics and the homeless. But what's striking about the 2010 Census is the emerging strength of challenges from the political right. Census participation rates have been declining since 1970, and if conservatives don't participate, doubts about its accuracy and credibility may become fatal.

The act of counting people is more patently political than ever -- here and worldwide. The 1980s census-taking in the Netherlands and in Germany had to be canceled; those efforts have been replaced with smaller sampling and surveys. In the past decade, the credibility of census results in Australia, Iran, Nigeria and Poland created major political fights. Political rivals in Kenya and Sudan are questioning census counts.

In this country, census officials are responding to complaints on the right by conducting unprecedented outreach with ads aimed at political conservatives -- a subset of the group with the biggest over-count: white Americans. (Wealthy, older suburbanites who have two homes -- a primary residence and a vacation place -- often get counted twice. But even still, if conservatives among them don't participate, they could be in danger of being undercounted.)

Critics charge that the decennial census intrudes on personal privacy and will result in more liberal Democrats in Congress if, as predicted, the number of minorities and immigrants counted increases. Conspiracy theories have circulated since at least 1991, when Republican Commerce Secretary Robert Mosbacher wrote of his concern over "political tampering with the census." In 1997, Republican National Committee Chairman Jim Nicholson estimated that new methods to compensate for undercounted groups might cost Republicans 24 seats in Congress. "If we look at American history," Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.) said last summer in urging conservatives not to answer census questions, "the data that was collected by the Census Bureau was handed over to the FBI and other organizations at the request of President Roosevelt and that's how the Japanese were rounded up and put into internment camps."

Conservative columnist Michelle Malkin cautioned readers in October about "politicization of the census" because it will count everyone in the United States, including those here illegally. "More illegal immigrants counted equal more power -- for ethnic lobbyists, Big Labor, and the Democratic Party," she wrote. In other words, as it certifies the declining percentage of older, white and right-leaning Americans, the census could be a boon to enemies.

Further fueling this fire is the controversy sparked last summer when Sen. Judd Gregg (R-N.H.) declined President Obama's invitation to become commerce secretary. At issue, some believe, was the senator's long-standing opposition to use of statistical sampling, in which adjustments are made to the head count using mathematical models based on sample counts. Gregg was said to want assurances from the president that White House political operatives would not be able to interfere with the census; many presume the senator wanted to hold off sampling that might add to the size of historically undercounted groups such as racial minorities and immigrants, diminishing Republican political power.

The criticisms have grown loud enough to elicit response. "We closely monitor developments in news and politics," said Steven J. Jost, associate director for communications at the Census Bureau. "We take seriously our responsibility to count everyone. So we are going to take every step we can to assure every American that we want them counted."

The bureau's efforts, aimed at conservatives, to put a friendly face on the census include putting its name on NASCAR No. 16, a Ford Fusion driven by Greg Biffle, to reach conservative male racing fans. The bureau has hired singer Marie Osmond in an effort to reach her female conservative audiences in Las Vegas and on the QVC shopping network. Football fans saw a census advertisement and heard specific mentions during the Super Bowl broadcast.

To be sure, the bureau is spending heavily to advertise across the political and media spectrum -- from black radio to Spanish-language soap operas. It launched a $133 million ad campaign in January. It has even contracted for ads during "Dora the Explorer" to raise awareness among parents. (It emerged after the 2000 Census that parents often don't bother to mention children under age 5 and that their undercount is higher than the undercounts for blacks or Hispanics.)

But babies are not the biggest problem for officials trying to maintain the nation's trust in census results. If there is a sign of trouble, it is not the political tensions caused by the rising number of minorities in this nation; it is that the government has to make a special effort to let upper-income, older suburbanites know that it dearly values them and wants to make sure they, too, are counted.

Juan Williams, a news analyst for NPR and a political analyst for Fox News, is the author of "Enough" and "Eyes on the Prize: America's Civil Rights Years, 1954-1965."

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