74 Interview: Polling Expert and Former WH Aide Greg Schneiders on Where Education Advocates Must Do Better — and What You Didn’t Know About Carter’s Time in Office

Prime Group CEO Greg Schneiders with President Jimmy Carter

There is a lot of focus on polling and public opinion in education but sometimes a lack of strategy on the “whys” and the “what now” questions associated with public opinion research. I wanted to talk with Greg Schneiders, a friend, colleague and fixture in Washington, about that.

A former bar owner, Senate aide, and campaign and White House aide to President Jimmy Carter, Greg has worked in and around politics for decades. He’s now CEO of Prime Group, a public affairs firm, where he’s worked with numerous education clients — from state and local nonprofits to national organizations and corporations, as well as national and international clients including the United Nations Foundation, Major League Baseball and MetLife.

Here are five questions I asked him recently about public opinion research, where education advocates need to do better, why being a bartender can help you understand politics and what you might not know about Carter’s time in office. This interview has been lightly edited for clarity.

You’ve had an eclectic career — before working at the White House for Jimmy Carter, you owned a bar. What did being a bar owner teach you about thinking about politics and public opinion?

Owning a bar teaches you about business. Tending bar teaches you about people — who they are, what they believe or feel, and why. To be a good bartender, you have to be a good listener, which involves the same skill set as being a good opinion researcher. Nearly everyone — in a bar or in a poll — wants to tell you what they think and how they feel. And they want you to listen and respect their opinions and their feelings.

Few people come to a bar to hear the bartender’s opinion. They come to share their opinions and feelings about politics, the economy, education, culture, political correctness, sex, family, sports, the weather. A bad bartender will decide that the loudmouth at the end of the bar doesn’t know what he’s talking about and will argue with or, more likely, ignore him. The good bartender will realize that it doesn’t matter if the loudmouth knows what he’s talking about — the point is that it is what he believes, whether it is true or not.

We saw a good example of that writ large in 2016 when many Clinton supporters and political analysts concluded that Trump supporters didn’t know what they were talking about and either argued with them or ignored them without listening carefully to what they were saying and why they felt the way they did. Regardless of your politics, that was a hugely consequential mistake.

What misconceptions do you most commonly run into about public opinion research?

One of the oldest and most common is simply that we cannot possibly know what 330 million Americans think by talking to 1,000 of them.

The recent perceived failures of surveys in the U.K. to predict Brexit and surveys in the U.S. to predict Trump’s 2016 election just reinforce that skepticism. In fact, the Brexit and U.S. 2016 surveys were much more on the mark than is generally understood.

Closely related to that is the belief that many survey respondents lie to pollsters. While some small number of respondents may misrepresent their opinions, studies have shown over and over that most are trying hard to be honest and candid in their responses. Recently, there have been a growing number of very serious challenges to quantitative research that have further stoked skepticism.

More than 70 percent of U.S. households are now cell-phone-only or cell-phone-mostly. Getting people to participate in a 15- or 20-minute interview on their cellphone is very difficult and expensive. As a result, more and more surveys are being conducted online using very large opt-in volunteer research panels. These online surveys, if designed and executed properly, can be just as reliable as the telephone surveys, and they have many benefits, including lower costs, faster turnaround times and more innovative methodologies.

Unfortunately, not all polls are created equal. There are extremely well-designed and -executed polls that are very reliable, and there are shoddy polls or, worse, polls that are designed to be misleading to serve some political or ideological agenda. Given the importance of public opinion polls in our social and political lives, it is unfortunate that more people — and particularly more journalists — have not made the effort to become more sophisticated and discerning consumers of research.

Polls generally show support for education reforms. Charter schools, for instance, enjoy fairly broad support despite the intense debate about them in the political space. Why hasn’t that support translated into broader political change? What are education reform advocates doing wrong?

Measuring, understanding and even shaping public opinion is a necessary but not sufficient step toward political mobilization. To use your example, in one recent survey 56 percent of Americans strongly (21 percent) or somewhat (35 percent) support the “formation of charter schools.” However, just 6 percent of public school students attend charter schools.

So, for the parents of 9 out of 10 public school students, the question of charter schools is largely theoretical. They have no “skin in the game.” This is a persistent problem with developing public support for education reform initiatives.

In one recent survey, just 3 percent of Americans listed education as their “most important” voting issue, behind health care (16 percent), the economy (15 percent), immigration (15 percent) and six other issues.

In a recent Gallup survey, 82 percent of parents of children in public schools say they are completely (41 percent) or somewhat (41 percent) satisfied with the education their child is receiving.

The easiest and most effective way of mobilizing support on an issue is to appeal to self-interest — like not having health coverage or job security. Mobilizing the half of Americans who do not have children in school or the 40 percent who have children in school but are satisfied with the education their children receive is a significant challenge. The former may wonder why they should care, while the latter may say, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”

This is why one of the most important and valuable uses of opinion research is to explore and identify messages that can mobilize support even among those who may not perceive any direct personal benefit to themselves.

When we worked with the Department of Education under President George W. Bush in the early days of No Child Left Behind, the challenge was to find ways to mobilize support for closing the achievement gap even among parents whose children were performing at high levels. That challenge was compounded by the sense among many parents that it was a “zero sum” situation — resources targeted to closing the achievement gap were resources that would not be available for gifted students or even the bulk of the “average” students.

In more recent work with Achieve, we were able to identify a very effective altruistic message in support of public education that worked even among those with no children or grandchildren in the public school system — that individuals who received a high-quality education had been shown to live longer, healthier lives, earn more and be happier. We may all be most concerned with our own “selfish” interests, but that doesn’t mean we cannot be persuaded to support causes greater than ourselves.

What do you see as the future of opinion research, both qualitative and quantitative? What major changes should we expect to see?

Quantitative and qualitative research are like cousins, but very distant and different cousins. Their ultimate goal is the same — to gain insight into what certain individuals and, by extension, groups of individuals are thinking or feeling.

But quantitative research is a mixture of science and art. The science is in the development of a representative or “projectable” sample that can reliably represent the views of the population being studied. The art is in the design, question wording and interpretation of results. Qualitative research is pure art. The “samples,” whether in a face-to-face focus group or online forum, are not necessarily representative and certainly not reliably projectable to the larger population.

We often warn our clients that qualitative research falls about halfway between a scientific quantitative survey and talking with Uber drivers and bartenders. You can get some interesting insights from Uber drivers and bartenders, but you certainly wouldn’t want to base any critical decision-making on those insights, or on qualitative research alone. Qualitative research is often valuable for adding texture or putting meat on the “bones” of a quantitative survey. For that reason, time and budget permitting, we often like to use quantitative and qualitative research in combination for the most accurate and richest insights.

More generally, opinion research isn’t going away. It is too important to our society, our democracy and our general understanding of our world to know what people think and believe and feel and support.

Telephone polling will become less common and important, just as its predecessor, door-to-door polling, faded away as telephones became more ubiquitous. With online surveys becoming more common and sophisticated, we are already seeing exciting innovations in critical areas like message-testing, which is the single most important aspect of strategic research.

For example, instead of reading a series of messages to respondents on the phone and asking them to rate each one, we now use an online “forced choice” methodology in which respondents choose “winners” and “losers” from among competing messages. The result is much greater precision and differentiation among messages and far better strategic guidance.

In qualitative research, instead of sitting in a room for two hours with a small number of focus group participants, we now conduct asynchronous online discussions with 20 to 30 participants over a three-day period. The result is more and better participation, enhanced participant interaction and the ability to test advertising, graphics, video and other stimuli. It is a challenging but exciting time to be in the opinion research field.

Jimmy Carter has been back in the news lately. What do people get wrong about Carter in the popular debate about his presidency?

Everyone knows that Jimmy Carter is an exemplary human being and possibly our greatest ex-president. Since leaving office, he has been working to eradicate diseases, promote democracy, mediate peace agreements and alleviate poverty — when he’s not teaching Sunday school in Plains, Georgia.

What too few people know is that he was also an excellent president. Too many people only remember that his presidency was scarred by the Iran hostage crisis, that he gave a speech about “malaise” — a word he didn’t actually use — and was defeated by Ronald Reagan.

Anyone under the age of 50 may not actually remember anything about him and has to rely on recent un-curated “history” often skewed by partisan perspectives.

The truth about the Carter presidency, as his vice president, Fritz Mondale, likes to say, is that they told the truth, obeyed the law and kept the peace. Sounds pretty simple but pretty good today. How many presidents can claim that not a single American died in combat on their watch?

Whatever degree of political stability exists in the Middle East today is largely due to Carter’s Camp David peace agreement between Egypt and Israel. Those cheap Southwest flights that got you home for the holidays are due to Carter’s policy of airline deregulation. The near elimination of inflation, which allows for long-term sustained economic growth, is largely due to the policies of Federal Reserve Chair Paul Volcker, whom Carter appointed knowing that it was at great political cost. The proliferation of democracies throughout South and Central America began with Carter’s Panama Canal Treaty of 1977 and establishment of human rights as a pillar of our diplomacy.

And if you care about the quality of our public education or the condition of our environment, you can thank Carter for creating the Departments of Education and Energy and bringing greater focus and resources to both of those critical issues.

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