Pollster Scott Rasmussen was the keynote dinner speaker at the fifth annual RightOnline conference in Las Vegas on June 16. Other conference speakers included former Alaska Governor Sarah Palin, Nevada Congressman Joe Heck, syndicated columnist Michelle Malkin, radio talk-show hosts Lars Larson and Rusty Humphries, and authors Jonah Goldberg and S.E. Cupp.
In addition to his evening speech, Rasmussen was a panelist earlier in the day on the topic “Power of Polling: How Polling Data Directs Conversation and Wins Arguments.”
After that panel discussion, the Charlottesville Libertarian Examiner caught up with him and asked questions about the state of public opinion surveys and changing trends he has observed over the two decades since he founded Rasmussen Reports.
The first question was about how a polling firm decides whether to include a third-party candidate like Gary Johnson in a presidential preference survey.
The ultimate answer, Rasmussen said, is that the decision is made on “a case-by-case basis.”
At the presidential level, he explained, “if you include a third-party candidate too early, their numbers are always inflated. If I put your name in right now, you would get probably five or six percent of the vote and -- all due respect -- you’re not going to get that on election day.”
As the election draws closer, however, he said, “if a candidate has demonstrated some traction, we’ll put them in, and usually get pretty reliable results towards the end.”
Responding to the “chicken-or-egg” dilemma of how a candidate can get “traction” without being already included in polls, Rasmussen explained that “what we typically see,” particularly in “a lot of state races [but] not so much at the presidential level,” is that there will “be a rise in the number of people who say they’re going to vote for another candidate.”
When Rasmussen’s team sees that kind of trend, they “begin to look” more closely and ask, “‘What’s going on here?,’” which might lead to adding specific third-party or independent candidates to the list of names being polled.
Rasmussen polls also ask questions about non-political topics, to add to the knowledge database of public opinion.
“We poll every single night on investor and consumer confidence,” he said, “which gives us a whole different set of data to work with and understand where people are. On those polls, we also ask about economic and business topics, whether it’s housing or autos or debt issues.”
Those answers provide a sense about “people who are not following politics every day” and how they “have other interests.”
Calling that data “remarkable,” Rasmussen explained, “it helps you understand the worldview much better.”
Rasmussen has also noted a change in attitudes over the past twenty years since he began doing public opinion surveys, when issues like gay marriage were not even being discussed.
Beginning with a caveat that he did not “want to overstate this in a political sense,” he pointed out that “the biggest change is that, as a younger generation comes along,” there are more apparent “libertarianish attitudes.”
What this means, Rasmussen explained, is that “people believe they have the right to make decisions for their own lives and they’re very comfortable with that. They get pretty offended when somebody tries to tell them they can’t do something.”
That attitude, he said, “would apply to something like same-sex marriage or to a whole range of other cultural and social issues coming up.”
A world without landlines
Finally, Rasmussen addressed the problem faced by polling organizations like his in the declining use of landline telephones.
“I really find that annoying,” he quipped, before offering a more serious take on the topic.
“What we’re doing,” he explained, is “using an online sample for people who don’t have or don’t use landlines. Right now, it accounts for about 15 to 20 percent of our likely voter pool. It’s an ongoing effort.”
Rasmussen Reports is also “experimenting,” he said, with “stuff that’s never going to see the light of day until we’ve worked with it for a while, with a whole bunch of new methods” that are not yet reflected in the polls his firm publishes.
“Ten years from now,” Rasmussen predicted, “we won’t be doing phone surveys at all.”