05-02-2016 | Incremental Certainty

In the 1980 presidential elections, candidate Ronald Reagan took a hard line on defense. In stern and urgent tones, he lashed out at the Soviet menace, calling for a vastly expanded military buildup. His opponent sought to use this stance to characterize Reagan as a warmonger, even a mad bomber. It was on of the weak spots in Reagan's public image.

At a certain point in the campaign, Reagan's handling of foreign and defense policy shifted noticeably. His tone became more reasoned and calm; the word peace began to appear more prominently in his speeches; references to "war" and the "arms race" faded. A new phrase emerged to cover his position on armaments, something bland and noncommital, but seemingly prudent: "a margin of safety."

What caused this change of tone and rhetoric? It was done in response to a key campaign advisor, Richard Wirthlin. The advice might have been based, as such advice usually has been, on pure political instinct, which may or may not have been persuasive with the candidate and his many other counselors. Politicians always work at the center of rumors, guesswork, hunches, tested savvy, gut feelings. But in this case, Wirthlin's advice was based on something else: numbers, lots of numbers. It arose from a barrage of public opinion polling all across the nation. Wirthlin commanded statistics. They gave his advice the appearance of something more than guesswork. It looked like science.

In the late 1960s, Wirthlin, a former economist at Brigham Young University in Utah, opened a market research firm in southern California called Decision Making Information. Like many such firms which measure consumer tastes, DMI easily moved into political polling, where Wirthlin was first hired on by Ronald Reagan to guide his gubernatorial campaign in California in 1970. DMI provided the usual services: voter surveys, sampling, simulations.


John Kennedy was the first national candidate to make important use of polling. That was in 1960; his hired pollster was Louis Harris, who then became an independent expert. By the late 1970s, every serious candidate for office in the United States who could afford the price was following Kennedy's lead; expensive polling along with lots of media exposure had become the prevailing campaign style. But by then, top figures in the business, like Wirthlin, had gone on to new heights of push-button statistical precision.

DMI had developed important connections. Its clients included government agencies like Heath and Human Services, the Department of Labor, the Office of Education. In turn, the firm was tapped into nearly forty federal data banks that make their information publicly available. Wirthlin, with the aid of a large staff -- as many as 300 -- was able to mobilize this wealth of data through an intricate computer method called PINS, Political Information Service. He had put together the most ambitious electronic sampling and simulating service ever developed, a new standard for the profession. His telephone surveys -- which included automated, tape recorded polls -- were larger, more intense, more constant. He developed "tracking" techniques that involved nightly phone interviews with between 500 and 1000 randomly selected voters towards the end of the campaign.

Wirthlin's carefully prepared interviews and computer programs, which divided into 108 demographic categories, could nearly single out any item on the candidate's platform or person image -- "The nice guy factor," "the meanness factor," -- and rapidly assess the "trend line" fluctuations in specific voter groups, providing overnight reactions to a speech, debate, press conference or even an offhand remark. The same refined and prompt polling could be done to assess the progress of the opposition, and the campaign could be adjusted as the numbers dictated: more of this, less of that, push harder here, smile more, keep your left side to the camera.

The pollsters are available to anyone who can afford them, they have been used by groups of every political persuasion. But they obviously bias elections in favor of those who can spend the most on the best services.

After all, their marketing techniques do succeed in selling a lot of worthless merchandise the public never knew it wanted. More to the point: there exists a pollster, Richard Wirthlin, who succeeded in making Ronald Reagan president. Any technique that can make a winner out of such unlikely material is bound to look impressive to the rest of the field.

-Theodore Roszak, The Cult of Information p. 188-190.

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