Scott Rasmussen is the American who will do the most to prevent bar fights this year.
The pollster’s newest venture, Pulse Opinion Research, will allow anyone to commission a scientific, nationwide poll for the price of an IKEA sofa. Have a long-lasting feud about what America really thinks about a topic? Settle it for $600.
“Soon, anyone can go to the [Pulse] website, type in their credit card number, and run any poll that they wanted, with any language that they want,” said Rasmussen. “In effect, you will be able to do your own poll, and Rasmussen will provide the platform to ensure that the polling includes a representative national sample.”
Any doubts over even trivial aspects of American public opinion can soon be stifled by hard data – coming to anyone with a desire to know and a willingness to forego the purchase of a TYLÖSAND couch. “Anyone can get in on it… I would expect Republicans to use it, and Democrats, and Green Party candidates and libertarians, and guys who just want to settle a bet,” Rasmussen told FrumForum.
The birth of Pulse has roots in frequent requests for Rasmussen to do commissioned polling. Rasmussen Reports has historically turned down outside clients in order to preserve its independence. However, to capitalize on demand, Rasmussen decided to license his polling methodology to a separate firm, Pulse Opinion Research, which plans to launch its online services sometime in February.
Undoubtedly, Rasmussen Reports’ success has been based on its ubiquity. It is their constant wave of polling, based on automated surveys, which has allowed Rasmussen Reports to be a leader in public opinion research.
But it is also Rasmussen’s methodology that has drawn the most fire. A recent Politico article features a whole gallery of Democrats arguing that Rasmussen’s poll questions are often biased, leading to results that are more favorable for Republicans than for Democrats.
Pulse Opinion Polling will likely be hit even harder by critics, as it allows each client to dictate survey wording. “Pulse will have nothing to do with survey design, or deciding what to poll on. It will have nothing to do with analysis or commentary,” said Rasmussen.
This leads the door open for statistical abuse, a possibility that Rasmussen doesn’t rule out. “If people were consciously abusing it, it could lead to some bad things. If you were to ask a question that was wildly loaded… you will get a biased result. Pulse is only promising that the platform you put it on will get reasonable results for the questions you ask.”
However, he insists that abuse is unlikely, adding that clients will have to disclose their survey design if they wish for their poll to have any legitimacy.
“My feeling is that most of the people who use Pulse will do so for private purposes and not for publicity,” said Rasmussen. “One of the reasons that I say this is that whenever you want to generate a poll for publicity, you need to have someone who is willing to talk about it [analytically]. Pulse will not do that. If a group runs a poll and wants to start talking about it, they will have to disclose question wording.”
On Rasmussen’s Automated Polling Model
Putting surveys on an automated system has driven down costs and allowed Rasmussen to gather increasing prolificacy, surveying everything from the special election in Massachusetts to how cold people think this winter has been.
In the world of polling, a debate rages over whether an automated polling model, where respondents listen to a pre-recorded question and press buttons to indicate their answer, provides accurate results.
While some, like Tom Jensen of Public Policy Polling, argue that “people are just more willing to say they don’t like a politician to us than they are to a live interviewer because they don’t feel any social pressure to be nice,” others opine that automated polls generate lower response rates and skew towards politically engaged ideologues.
Yet the jury remains out on the topic – no academic studies have been done to determine the effect of automated polling.
Rasmussen pointed to his firm’s success as validation for his methodology: “Mark Blumenthal, a pollster, reported recently that we passed Gallup in Google searches this past year… And, we have the biggest audience of any public polling firm.”
On His Book, In Search of Self-Governance, and His Personal Ideology
Rasmussen disdains the liberal-conservative dichotomy, claiming that “conservatives in Washington, just like liberals in Washington, tend to think that government has too big of a role to play. The things that matter most to people do take place outside the realm of politics and government.”
“I have real problems with [the conservative label],” he added.
Yet despite insistence that he is an independent pollster, a glance at his upcoming book, In Search of Self-Governance, reveals a philosophically conservative mindset.
When pressed, he admits as much: “In terms of the notion that [conservatism] is consistent with the basic ideals that the country was founded on, absolutely, [I agree].”
The impetus behind his most recent book is his concern over the way people have begun to view governance. “Governance has shrunk to a very narrow meaning, which is what the government does,” Rasmussen told FrumForum.
A lack of personal responsibility has excluded private, individual regulation from the meaning of ‘governance’, he argued. “We govern ourselves in our society in the way that we act, and the way that we behave, and the way we influence others… when we volunteer for little league, and when we build a habitat house.”
“The minute you [equate governance with government], you’ve shrunk so much of what has made America great – the whole notion that the government should be driving everything is fundamentally out of sync with American history,” said Rasmussen.
From ESPN Co-Founder to Public Opinion Researcher
Scott Rasmussen grew up in the world of broadcasting, starting as the announcer for a hockey team. Realizing that innovations in field of communications had drastically lowered the price of sending a signal across the country, he founded ESPN with his father Bill in 1978. “ESPN took advantage of brand new technologies available in cable television. We fed the appetite of sports junkies,” said Rasmussen.
Explaining his transition from co-founding ESPN to his presidency of a reputable public polling company, Rasmussen said: “You know, it’s just time.”
After leaving ESPN, Scott tried his hand at polling. “When I first started to do some polling, I was trying to help some people who were trying to pass term limits on members of Congress.” Scott put up a website soon thereafter, and the rest is history.
Scott Rasmussen is largely an autodidact in the realm of public opinion – he has no degree in statistics or survey methodology or polling, or even politics. Instead, he received his B.A. in history from DePauw University and his M.B.A. from Wake Forest. ““I grew up very good with numbers,” he explains.
The irony of Rasmussen’s life, from his point of view, is his futile attempt to escape from the world of sports and media.
“The thing that was funny about the journey is that for most of my life, I grew up in broadcasting, I wanted to do something different when I grew up. It seems like I ended up right back in it, he told FrumForum. “The ultimate irony is that politics these days, at least as it’s practiced in Washington, has become a sports event.”