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Famous for 15 Minutes
Political Junkie

By Richard Morin
Washington Post Polling Director
Monday, Aug. 28, 2000

Have you had your 15 minutes of fame? Me, neither. But hope springs eternal, "and Americans are famous for their optimism," writes Humphrey Taylor, chairman of the Harris Poll.

He's got the data to prove it: Nearly a third of all adults believe "they are at least somewhat likely to become famous for at least 15 minutes," and about one in eight — 13 percent — are certain they're going to be someone, someday, according to a fun new Harris Poll about public attitudes toward fame and famous people.

Pessimists were about as plentiful as optimists, the survey found. Only a third — 35 percent — said it was "not at all likely" that they'll be "well known or widely recognized for an accomplishment or activity," at least "for a short period of time."

Young adults, those happy dreamers, were the most confident of success: More than four in 10 — 44 percent — of those between the ages of 18 and 24 said it was at least somewhat likely that they would be famous. And older twentysomethings were even more giddy about their chances: Six in 10 expected that they would be well-known, at least briefly, sometime in their lives.

But the warm, rosy glow of optimism quickly fades. Barely three in 10 Americans between the ages of 30 and 39 believed they would get their 15 minutes of fame. And by the time people reached 65, the dream was largely and understandably gone: Only 14 percent reported there was a reasonable chance they would become well-known.

When asked how they would use their fame, eight in 10 Americans gave the Miss America answer: They'd use it to "help people who are less fortunate," Taylor wrote. Still, a substantial number of Americans acknowledged that they would put their fame in service of selfish ends. About a third — 35 percent — said they would use their fame "to help make more people be aware of [their] talents, abilities or expertise." And nearly as many said they'd use it to promote their "personal or career accomplishments."

There's other news in this breezy summertime survey. Politicians may be more popular than we think they are. More Americans said they would prefer to dine with a politician (35 percent) than with a movie star (18 percent). Also high on the list: religious leaders, mentioned as the dinner partners of choice by 11 percent of those interviewed. (Journalists and scientists brought up the rear, mentioned by 2 percent and 1 percent respectively. Maybe they could dine out with each other. Or eat alone.)

Speaking of dining out, Harris polltakers also asked this national sample of 1,010 adults in mid-July which famous people they would choose to have dinner with. President Clinton led the list, followed by Pope John Paul, Hillary Clinton, Oprah Winfrey and Billy Graham.

Watch It

The National Council on Public Polls has issued an advisory criticizing "instant" or overnight polls as significantly less reliable than surveys conducted over several days.

"In general, the quality of a sample improves the longer the survey is in the field. Surveys conducted on one evening, or even over two days, have more sampling biases — due to non-response and non-availability — than surveys which are in the field for three, four or five days," the NCPP Review Board wrote.

So true. The NCPP has been particularly active this election year. Earlier this month, it censured pollster Frank Luntz for allegedly mischaracterizing on MSNBC the results of focus groups he conducted during the Republican Convention.

That marked the second time that Luntz has been formally criticized. A few years ago, the American Association for Public Opinion Research (AAPOR) censured Luntz for failing to release the results of surveys he allegedly conducted for the Republicans in support of the Contract With America.

I applaud the work of the NCPP, and respect all of the people who sit on its Review Board. The NCPP mission to police the public polls is an altogether worthy one. AAPOR is swell, too.

That said, these frequent spankings of Luntz by the polling establishment may backfire, since many AAPOR leaders and NCPP trustees lead organizations that also seem to bump up close to breaking the very standards the two organizations so fervently endorse.

NCPP trustee Frank Newport, for example, is the editor-in-chief of the Gallup Poll. His name is listed on the NCPP release condemning overnight polls. Gallup routinely conducts one- and two-night polls for USA Today and CNN, notably the overnights Gallup did after the announcement of the Republican and Democratic vice presidential candidates. Actually, those particular polls were done even more quickly: Gallup stopped interviewing at 8:50 p.m. Eastern Daylight Time — or 5:50 p.m. in the Western states. Talk about risky.

But the NCPP release on overnights didn't name names. That smacks of a double standard — and suggests a credibility gap of Grand Canyonesque proportions.

Don't get me wrong. Newport is a terrific pollster. I single him out because he's exactly the kind of person I'd want policing the polls. But when the best and brightest stand tarnished and vulnerable, who can effectively and credibly serve as the public's watchdog on the polls?

Exploding Trees

Does global warming cause forest fires? Many Americans say yes. In the Harris Poll, a random sample of adults also were asked this question: "Do you think that global warming is, or is not, probably a cause of the large number of forest wildfires in the West?" One in three — 35 percent — said it probably was, and 10 percent weren't sure.

Richard Morin is director of polling for The Washington Post. "What Americans Think" appears Mondays in The Washington Post National Weekly Edition. Morin can be reached at morinr@clark.net .

© Copyright 2000 The Washington Post Company

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