Pols, Pols, & Populism

In the most recent Americans Talk Issues poll (conducted in November 1993), we thought we'd dig a little deeper into the national populist strain that Ross Perot has tapped and its ramifications for Bill Clinton, whose 1992 presidential campaign was also run along populist lines. So we asked Alan Kay to include the following question: "How would you rate President Clinton on a zero-to-ten scale, where ten means you think his decisions are always fully in the interests of ALL the people, and zero means you think his decisions are always in the interests of a few . . . the higher the number, the more democratic you think his decisions are."

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How the six hundred Americans polled responded must have come as a surprise to Stan Greenberg, Clinton's own pollster (who helped conduct the polling)--he'd predicted that, overall, the president would get an eight or a nine. In fact, Clinton averaged a 5.1.

This is not good news for an administration that needs to harness the populist energy at large in the country, rather than see it turn rightward. The Clinton team's expectation of a more positive result is also unsettling, as it implies that they may be out of touch with the national mood. This could be a problem for the country as well as the president

Even if the Clinton administration succeeds in controlling Ross Perot, they have a bigger problem to handle: the 19 million Americans who voted for him in 1992. Perot, for all his personal shortcomings--which were readily apparent in his testy televised debate with Vice President Al Gore--has tapped something real in America, and while his personal popularity is waning, the pulse of his constituency remains strong. Perot's pollster, Frank Luntz, claims that as many as sixty-eight seats in Congress could be in play in 1994 as a result of Perot's influence. In 1996, unless there are dramatic changes, the race for the presidency is likely to be just as volatile.

In election after election this past November, voters said it over and over: forget politics as usual; get rid of the incumbents; we want change (the Clinton mantra of 1992). Only this time, the incumbents in the mayors' offices and governors' mansions were by and large Democrats, meaning that change in many cases meant electing a Republican.

But long before Ross Perot assembled his charts and pointers and catchy little phrases, a series of comprehensive research surveys had already begun documenting what was to become known as the Perot movement. The polls, known as Americans Talk Issues and paid for by millionaire Florida philanthropist Alan F. Kay, have covered a range of subjects, from the United Nations and the Persian Gulf War to the budget deficit and reinventing government.

Since 1987, Kay has spent $2 million of his own money on polls that tap the national conscience. A retiree who made his millions in the stock market and left his mark on the computer industry, Kay is what you might call a populist's pollster. He believes that people should advise their elected representatives, not through hit-and-miss electronic town halls, but through scientifically valid, nationwide polls. So Kay has employed Democratic and Republican pollsters to come up with a comprehensive series of polls about national security, the federal economy, and reinventing government. The results are shared with decisionmakers of all parties, the media, and academicians. Kay thinks of his client as the American people, but he foots the bill.

Although he has come to populism from the Left rather than the Right (his first polls, entitled Americans Talk Security, were prompted by a concern with the extent of military spending), Kay espouses in his writings many of the themes that make Perot so dangerous to the Clinton administration. Kay believes that the collective wisdom of the people is superior to what can be gained through individual representation, and that when faced with hard choices--such as cutting the budget deficit--the people are less hesitant to do so than their representatives.

His surveys differ from other polls in key respects. His sample size is always at least one thousand people, and many of his questions are open-ended, causing the questioning to last half an hour or longer, if the participant is willing. Computers also play a role in the polls, determining what the next question will be based on how previous questions were answered.

"Americans Talk Issues surveys are about what Americans at large want their government to do. They are not attitudinal surveys and certainly not election horse-race surveys," Kay wrote in a September paper. "They are not designed to make sound bites, headlines, or deadlines, nor are they designed to find out how to win elections. They are designed to find out what Americans want for governance: for policy, for legislation, and for regulations on the most difficult issues facing our nation."

What do these polls reveal? For starters, Americans are honestly concerned about the deficit and not afraid to make hard choices in order to bring it under control. In a survey released in November 1992, the one thousand adults surveyed said they would cut the deficit by an average of 39 percent. To increase revenue by $29 billion, they would raise corporate income taxes and taxes on pollution, tariffs, alcohol, and tobacco. To cut spending, they would take $53 billion out of military foreign aid, the Central Intelligence Agency and other covert operations, nuclear warhead maintenance and production, national defense, embassies and diplomatic service, and the space program. In a more recent survey, in April of last year, voters were unequivocal about Congress spending money the country doesn't have: 72 percent would like to pass a balanced budget amendment, with emergency funds limited exclusively to national defense.

Also favored by more than 60 percent of those questioned were electronic town-hall meetings, free airtime for candidates, motor-voter registration, and an 800 number to the White House.

Three-fourths of those polled favored more polls. Specifically, they favored requiring Congress to "conduct scientific, nonpartisan, large-sample surveys of public opinion on all important national issues and to promptly release the results to the media so that Congress and the public will know what most Americans want for legislation."

Alan Kay agrees. He has proposed that Congress create a national, bipartisan polling operation that would undertake a hundred surveys per year consisting of four comprehensive polls on twenty-five major issues. He estimates the cost to be $10 million per year.

One vehicle for communication between the people and the government is the annual dissemination of the widely dreaded Internal Revenue Service tax forms. Kay suggests that a one-page questionnaire be included with tax forms, so that the people can let their representatives know their priorities. He knows the idea is popular, because he asked a question about it in one of his surveys.

Kay actually persuaded a freshman congressman, Ron Klink, D-Pennsylvania, to sponsor a bill calling for the establishment of the Congressional Office of Public Opinion Research and Assessment. The bill was promptly dubbed the "worst idea of the 103d Congress" by Roll Call, Capitol Hill's newspaper-in-the-know.

Why did Representative Klink's bill hit with such a thud? "It's a hard sell," says Kay. "We're trying to break down the myth that members of Congress know what's best for their constituents."

Of course, there is the possibility that Congress might not like what it hears. Kay's April survey also found that one of Americans' favorite ideas is to cut congressional salaries and benefits. A staggering 80 percent of the one thousand Americans surveyed said congressional compensation should be reduced "to let them know we really want spending cuts and that cuts should start at the top with themselves."

When Kay began commissioning his surveys, friends cautioned him that the opinions of Americans at large, particularly on foreign policy, might be too raw and unrefined to serve much good. Kay recalls his reply: "If the American people are a bunch of Rambos, well, I guess we'd better know that."

Susan Yoachum is a political writer for the San Francisco Chronicle.