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Q&A: Jim Clifton

The man behind the Gallup pollsters on his company, its history, and the importance of public-opinion polling.

- September 9, 2003

In 1935, Dr. George Gallup—previously an ad exec with Young & Rubicam in New York—founded the Gallup Organization, which would soon become the nation's pre-eminent pollsters. Things started off well, in 1936, when Gallup correctly predicted FDR's defeat of Kansas Gov. Alf Landon for the presidency, contrary to the then-leading polling group. From that start, Gallup expanded its polling—never on behalf of political parties or special interests—into all sorts of fields and all around the world. An internationally known name, Gallup had been pictured on the covers of Time, Newsweek, and U.S. News by the time he died, in 1984.

James Clifton, the founder of a Nebraska research firm called SRI, took over the Gallup Organization in 1988, and since then the company's business has grown rapidly. Indeed, when Gallup made The New York Times a few weeks ago, it was not for one of its polls but for news about the company itself: Rather than releasing its poll results through other media, as it has in the past, Gallup would become something of a publisher in its own right, developing new ways to get its data and analyses directly into interested consumers' hands without being processed and reported by various middleman news organizations.

Clifton spoke mediabistro.com recently about this shift at Gallup, the company's history, and why public-opinion polling is important in the first place.

Most of us think of the Gallup Organization as the people who do election polls. But apparently there's a whole lot more to it than that. What's the other stuff you do—which I understand is actually most of your business?
When Dr. Gallup was leading the company, politics was what governed democracy. He had tools and techniques to access public opinion and ways to hear the voice of the electorate that was reported leadership. Now, 70 years since he founded it, free enterprise is as or more important than politics in what rules the world. So we've just taken the tools that he invented and in addition to the electorate we've applied them to customers and then to employees. You know all of us are governed, lead, or managed by politicians or by CEOs or by our managers, so we've just added those two other electorates: customers and employees.

But Gallup holds this spot in the popular imagination as these mythical poll people. What you're describing sounds on some level like it's taking away from that mythology: You becomes just another consulting firm, maybe with a different technique.
It's very, very different. Most management consulting firms, it's just thinking outside the box. That's what McKinsey and Bain do, they think outside the box, so they look at your organization and they say, you've got to quadruple, you have to acquire, and blah blah blah. We are still very data-based. So what we do is for, I don't know, probably half the Fortune 100 companies, we go through, and just like Dr. Gallup did, we study the electorate, we study their customers, just thousands and thousands and thousands of them. And then we build a strategy based on the voice of that electorate, their customers. It's very, very different.

The news now is that you're pushing to become more of a media company than just a research company. Again, in the popular imagination, you kind of are this media company; you provide these studies for the news media. How is what you're going to be doing different from what was being done before?
We used to just do our polls and then hand the data over to media and then they would report the polls. And the media do a terrible, terrible, terrible job with polls. Where there can be a very rich story, they just print one little headline, and so all the best work that a thousand Gallup people have done just gets totally missed. But now we've given up on that. Instead, we're becoming our own source, with the polls and the analysis in one place. We're a destination not just for journalists but for everybody—you might be a professor, you might be The New York Times, you might be the London Telegraph, you might just be someone who wants to learn more about one of our polls. And any of these people can go to our web solution—the Gallup Brain, it's called—because they're doing a paper or they're a lobbyist or they're a whatever, and all the work we've ever done is stuffed into this gigantic website, going back 50 years. If you wanted to see a 50-year trend on how blacks and whites are getting along, that's all in that website. Whatever our next blockbuster is—the last really big blockbuster was we showed that after President Bush and Colin Powell said that our relationships are fine with the Muslim world, with a billion Muslims, we did a poll of 10,000 Arabs in nine countries, and we found that 20 to 40 percent of them think it's a good idea to kill Americans—you'll be able to get all the data and analysis there. We used to just hand that off, just be a source. Now real people can use it, and that's been a huge breakthrough for us.

How did the Gallup Organization become so synonymous with polling?
I've looked into this, because I was really curious how Dr. Gallup in one lifetime became so famous—when I go to another country, it's just embarrassing, when everybody knows Gallup and all that. What he did a long time ago was that he decided that he would never work for a special-interest group. And so he would never work for Republicans or Democrats, obviously, but also not for the NRA or even things like animal rights. So he never took a paycheck from a special-interest group. I saw a study recently where it said that red meat's not as bad as you think and all of that, and it came out of Johns Hopkins. At the very end, the last sentence the research was funded by the National Cattlemen's Association. That's what we never do, and so I think we became synonymous, because not only were we honest but also because Dr. Gallup figured out a way to always have the face of independence. He would say, "Oh, we would never work for them, we would never work for them," and that's what we've always carried on. That's why I think we became such a big name, we didn't do it because any of the work that my leadership team has done, we inherited that from Dr. Gallup.

So do you think old George would have been pleased with this move?
I think he'd be real pleased. His said that if democracy is about the will of the people, somebody ought to go out and find out what that will is. He never said officials should necessarily vote the will, because the leaders have to vote their values and all that kind of thing. But he said that if leaders have polls—and they all do—he said that you've got question the integrity of democracy if people can't have polls that are as competent as the polls the leaders have. Otherwise you have to ask yourself, what are they keeping secret? So why would we keep it a secret from the man on the street, what the rest of the country is thinking, so only the leaders would know? Dr. Gallup had a great mission and that was why he published polls, that's why they wouldn't work for a president like other would, because he wanted the polls for the man on the street. So now with the new application that we have, I think that he would love it, because now more than ever people can use the Gallup Poll.

And of course you'll still be doing the presidential-election polling you're so well known for?
More than ever. We do polls of Chinese, I just agreed about half an hour ago to do an in-depth poll of Russians, we've got upcoming work in Baghdad, and many Muslim polls. A lot of it is just technology— we're bigger and have more resources than Dr. Gallup did. But we do far more polls of the six-billion world citizenship than we did before.

Jesse Oxfeld is the editor-in-chief of mediabistro.com.



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