Every field of endeavor has its own ultimate questions, and public-opinion research is no exception. The president's latest approval rating and whether at a given moment a majority thinks the economy is improving are starting points, not goals, of worthwhile opinion analysis.
Few people who watch TV and read newspapers or magazines will get that idea, however. There is more polling presented these days than ever before; most just lists numbers, as in: " 'Only a 54-45 percent majority is positive about the results of the summit meeting,' according to Louis Harris." Some poll reports are quite worthwhile but some altogether fake, and it is often difficult to distinguish between them.
It is in such a setting that Transaction Books of Rutgers University has published "Polls and the Awareness of Public Opinion," by Leo Bogart, which goes a long way to providing the context that is so lacking.
This is not your ordinary book on survey research. It has not a single chart, table, cross tab, chi square. I don't remember seeing the words "statistically significant" or anything resembling them. Instead, it is in turn witty, scholarly, intellectually wide ranging, sarcastic and enormously informative.
Bogart obviously enjoys polls. "It would have been marvelous, indeed," he writes, "if George Gallup had been around in 1787 to ask a cross-section of the French peasantry, 'On the whole, would you say that King Louis XVI is doing an excellent job, a good job, only a fair job, or a poor job?' "
Rulers have always had a keen ear for public discontent, Bogart notes, but before the advent of scientific polling about 50 years ago, "there had never been a means by which mere verbal expression of dissent could be used as a power in itself . . . The publication and serious acceptance of polls by the public have introduced into the political process the notion of an independent criterion of legitimacy in the conduct of government."
Such a tool also makes for a powerful weapon, leading to manipulation and political degradation, as in this West Coast ad cited by Bogart: "You can be elected state senator; leading public relations firm with top flight experience in statewide campaigns wants a senator candidate."
The book is rich in anecdotes. Richard Nixon sits on polls showing him with two-thirds of the New Hampshire primary vote, saying publicly he would be happy with 35 percent, acting surprised when he gets 79 percent. Or, again Nixon, this time saying that if an "off-the-cuff appearance" on TV is to be successful in winning over viewers, it must entail "many hours of preparatory work."
Nixon appears somewhat frequently in these pages (though not to excess) because the book is an update of a work first published in 1972 under the title "Silent Politics." It has a new introduction and some new commentary. It would be nice, of course, if there were more from the 1980s; Bogart seems aware of every amusing, important or embarrassing incident in American polling, and goodness knows there have been many in the interim years.
Nevertheless, the stories he tells are worth reading today, and the underlying public opinion themes Bogart addresses are quite up to date.
Some examples: Unfavorable poll ratings sometimes scare likely political candidates out of seeking office, and Bogart notes a case involving George Romney. That is happening more these days. Geraldine Ferraro, far behind in the polls, has decided not to run for the Senate in New York. She denies that the public-opinion samplings were the reason, but one wonders whether she would have made the same decision had the polls shown her ahead of her opponent, or close to him.
Being cowed by polls violates a principle, as enunciated by Bogart, that has to do with politics, public opinion and courage as well: "It is never the opinion of the moment, but the potential for opinion change which must preoccupy those who seek to exert political influence."
Similarly, Bogart's description of the possible effect of terrorism on public opinion may be more immediate for readers now than it was when written. "Violent acts and words produce political awareness where there was none before . . . Their impact is multiplied through the power of the mass media, which produce feelings of shock or outrage far beyond the immediate scene of events . . . The previously disinterested party, now sucked into the drama as a kind of participant, acquires a sense of involvement and responsibility for a solution. He must ask himself, 'What drives these people to such mad and desperate actions? Why do they feel so strongly? Could they perhaps have a point?' "
Leo Bogart has made his living in marketing departments for such firms as Standard Oil of New Jersey, McCann-Erickson and Revlon, "doing research on lipstick and powder and eye shadow," as one of his acquaintances put it. He is currently executive vice president and manager of the Newspaper Advertising Bureau, which may or may not be a step up.
By bent, however, he is a scholar and historian, exploring in particular the relationship between power and the manipulation of public opinion, often with a certain terror between the lines.
Of Adolf Hitler he writes:
"Every modern dictator uses his propaganda apparatus to create a popular portrait of himself as folksy and responsive to the mass . . . Even Hitler beams upon little pigtailed girls in Tyrolean costumes, bestowing bouquets. Hitler's solicitude for the daily habits of the German people was brought home by Robert Ley, his labor leader: 'He says, "Take a shower instead of a bath. Why? Because I am worried that a mother might bathe her children one after the other in the same water. I don't want that." ' "