With around 20 per cent real unemployment, it’s US joblessness that could prove the stumbling block for Obama's second term – not foreign policy issues, says Jim Clifton, CEO of Gallup, America’s leading company conducting opinion polls worldwide.
RT: What are the dynamics in terms of opinion polls as far as the economy goes, among the American people, the way it was four years ago and the way it is now?
JC: We were going just fine in 2007, first part of 2008, then we crashed down. Now it's coming back a little bit.
RT: Enough to win President Obama the next election?
JC: I don’t think quite yet… According to the Gallup poll, if we vote tonight, Romney will beat him… They are not voting for Romney – they just vote against the president.
RT: What are the main reasons not to vote for the president?
JC: Strictly unemployment. Just one reason. Foreign policy plays no role at all right now.
If something really big happens… that will only make a little bit of a difference. Americans don’t want to hear about foreign policy. They should, but they don’t. Gallup shows real unemployment is close to 20 per cent in America. Not 8.5 but 20 per cent. 30 million people are out of work. 60 per cent of them told Gallup they have no hope of getting a job. That is 18 million.
RT: Do Americans blame the president for that?
JC: There are two questions here. Do I think they should? No. Do they? Yes.
RT: There were two polls conducted in America, not Gallup. In one, the majority said ‘yes’ to war with Iran and in another one the majority said ‘yes’ to diplomacy. What do you think about that?
JC: The wording of the question makes an enormous amount of difference. One thing that we noticed, if you put the word ‘freedom’ or ‘free’ in a question, it really changes its outcome… They call it “free choice act”. Words are very powerful in our questions. If your question is: do you believe the people who are writing the questions can make it come out any way they want? – I would say pretty much so.
RT: What do your polls say about Iran?
JC: Americans are not nearly as war aggressive as we were a few years ago. We have enormous war fatigue. That is not really positive for Iran in the way that Americans believe that Iran has nuclear capabilities, they believe Iran is evil that wants to do bad and all that kind of thing. But Americans really want to take a break from war.
RT: Policy makers probably regularly follow your polls and polls in general. Do you think a very negative poll can stop a war?
JC: That is a hell of a question. It cannot stop a war. I think it can play a role in stopping a war. By the way, when President Roosevelt said that we might have to take our boys to war against Germany – Americans overwhelmingly said “no war”. And Roosevelt went to war anyway. So certainly, a Gallup poll or public opinion did not stop that war.
Whatever the cause is: pull out of Iraq, pull troops out of Afghanistan – I don’t think a poll does that. But like a lot of other information, I’m sure polls play a role.
RT: In the run-up to the Iraq war, right before the war Gallup showed 72 per cent support among the Americans. Before the war, that support was much lower, so people had rallied behind the leaders. What affects what more [what has more influence]: the opinion polls on the leaders, or the leaders on the opinion polls?
JC: Sort of neither one. Americans are getting educated on what the crisis is. In America, only about 20 per cent follow the news. We were taking our polls on a possible war on Iran. You got a whole bunch of Americans not following it at all – up until it gets serious.
RT: Has there been a poll by Gallup recently that you would look at and say: why doesn’t the government take the results into account and act accordingly?
JC: I’ve had the same job for 24 years. But I roll around on the floor all the time. I just look and say ‘how can you not see this’.
One is, there are about 6 million businesses in the US. Most of them are small. The government thinks that the businesses are not growing because banks don't loan them money… That is a proven example of [the government] not knowing what is on the minds of the people and then making stupid policies. They make everything worse. We do a poll of the six million businesses… They do not say the biggest problem is getting money. They can get money. What they say is they lack confidence in the economy because of all the new regulations.
RT: What about foreign policy?
JC: Our State Department, intelligence, defense, everybody – there is a huge black hole. We are not very good at mathematically describing the huge shifts of the will of civilizations of people.
If you would ask the US government to mathematically describe the relations between the Muslims and the west – will it get better or worse or stay about the same – they would say ‘we don’t know’.
How the hell do you manage relationships as far as geopolitics goes? They have no math.
If you don’t know that, when you’re making policies around it – you make mistake, mistake, mistake.
RT: How do you decide on the questions?
JC: We have a group of what we think are the best pollsters in the world employed here. Then we go out and there is a whole bunch of very good pollsters at universities. We go and ask their opinions.
RT: Did you ever get a phone call from a government official saying ‘can you ask the American people what they think about this and that very important issue?’
JC: Yes, we get those all the time, probably we got hundreds of them only this week.
RT: They also give you the questions to ask?
JC: No, we take it into consideration… Our analysts go into a room and they write what they believe to be the question – that is why they pay us.
RT:Is polling a business?
JC: It is for us.
RT: Where does the money come from?
JC: We do proprietary work for Fortune 500 companies. We’re really good at doing polls of their customers with huge samples. We help them build strategies so that they can be more competitive.