Frank Newport, Pennington resident and editor in chief of Gallup, is a strong believer in polls. The opinions of the people matter, he believes, not just for politicians, but for businesses as well.
Gallup, since its founding in 1935, has always been a two-pronged organization. One wing is devoted to studying public opinion, the other to business consulting. As a longtime employee of the company, Newport has dipped his toe into both waters. Both wings rely on gathering information about how people think and feel, be it voters, customers, or workers.
Gallup is most famous for its public opinion polls, but the business side is what funds the entire operation, which spans 40 offices around the world with more than 1,200 employees. The majority of what Gallup does is actually working for business and industry, and that goes all the way back to when Dr. George Gallup in Princeton founded it in 1935, Newport says.
“Even in those days, it was a for-profit company,” he said.
Gallup had close ties to Hollywood. It polled the public about movie stars, and sold the data to Hollywood producers, who could then rank them in terms of “bankability.”
These days, Gallup mainly serves businesses by using their research skills to improve employee engagement.
“Our consulting services are built around employee engagement, which is based on the science that shows that having engaged employees at any company will lead to higher profitability,” Newport said.
As editor in chief, Newport is no longer directly involved in consulting. Instead, he is in charge of how Gallup analyzes and reports the data it collects. The company functions like a daily newspaper in some ways, and continually posts stories about poll findings to its website, Gallup.com, and several other outlets.
Newport also has a “polling matters” blog on the website, and has recently written several books, including God is Alive and Well: The Future of Religion in America and Polling Matters: Why Leaders Must Listen to the Wisdom of the People. Newport spoke at the Princeton Regional Chamber of Commerce luncheon on Oct. 2 at the Princeton Marriott.
Newport grew up in Texas, where his father was a Baptist theologian who was a professor and ultimately a provost at a theological ministry in Fort Worth. The family’s heavy involvement in Baptist faith created in Newport an interest in religion that endures to this day. (He still attends services.) He also took an early interest in the social aspects of human behavior, fascinated, he said, by the status groupings that occur seemingly as a result of natural laws.
Having attended four different high schools at one time or another, Newport noticed the same patterns at each one —- there were always jocks, nerds, popular kids, unpopular kids, and other cliques. “It amazed me, the degree to which everyone developed a consensus on who was in which group. This was a strong social organization that was not formal at all. No one was officially a member of the jocks or the cool kids — these groups developed naturally, and also they were powerful.”
Newport says he remembers thinking how interesting and powerful those social stratifications were, in ways that mirror thinking about social and economic inequality in the adult world. When Newport went to college at Baylor, (a Baptist university) he chose to double major in broadcasting and sociology. He went on to the University of Michigan, where he got a master’s and PhD. in sociology.
Social behavior plays a role in business as well as the general public. “There are levers that management can pull to make employees more engaged,” Newport says. One observation of Gallup’s model of employee engagement is that employees who have a best friend at work are more productive, Newport says. Employers can’t force people to be friends, of course, but they can encourage employees to interact with one another.
The challenges of polling a business, to assess employee engagement, and that of polling the public are very different. In a business, it is easy to have every single employee take a survey. When trying to figure out how a whole country thinks, that approach is impossible.
The Gallup poll recently determined that President Obama currently has a 44 percent approval rating, which is higher than George W. Bush enjoyed in his second term, but lower than that of Clinton. “To do that, we interviewed, over three days, 1,500 randomly selected Americans,” Newport says. “If it had been possible for us to magically talk to 200 million plus adults in that fashion, it would have been more accurate than our sample, but practically, you can’t do that.”
The U.S. census does attempt that feat, but it takes place every 10 years and costs billions of dollars.
Finding a truly random sample of people to poll, that will accurately reflect the opinion of the 200 million un-interviewed Americans is the perpetual challenge that polling organizations face, and one that is constantly changing along with communications technology.
Currently, Gallup conducts its polls mainly by telephone, using both land-lines and cell phones to reach people and conduct phone interviews. The proportion of cell phones to land lines has increased as mobile phones have become more popular, and it is currently at about 50-50, Newport says. There is little reason to believe the telephone will continue to be the best way of polling people in the future, however.
“The only constant is change,” Newport says. “We are very carefully studying and experimenting with new methods. Technologies change the ways people communicate. One obvious one is interviewing people with e-mail. Another is text messages, because smartphone penetration is up to 60 percent plus. We are looking at these methods as we go forward. One issue is that there is no sampling frame from which we can randomly sample. We know every phone number in America. That’s something that is knowable … but the average American has three plus e-mail addresses.”
Like his father the theologian, Newport has a strong interest in religion, although Newport studies it as a scientist, not a minister.
“I think it’s a vitally important part of American society,” he says. “It’s hard not to realize how powerful it is.”