Kohut, Lehrer to examine public opinion as election approaches



Mary Desmond | Staff Writer

There is a man who wants to know what’s on your mind.

Andrew Kohut, president of the Pew Research Center and director of the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press, has been researching, collecting and analyzing changes and trends in public opinion since the late 1980s. At 10:45 a.m. Monday in the Amphitheater, Kohut will meet with retired “PBS News Hour” anchor and Week Two morning lecture host Jim Lehrer to open a week of programming titled “The Lehrer Report: What Informed Voters Need to Know.”

“Starting with Andy Kohut, to hear from his leadership from the Pew Research Center, allows us to know what’s on people’s minds,” said Sherra Babcock, director of the Department of Education.

The Pew Research Center, a Washington think tank founded in 2004, is a nonpartisan organization that creates comprehensive reports on attitudes and trends that affect American politics and society. The organization is independent and does not work for specific news organizations or accept commissions to do surveys. Pew is staffed with experts in the social sciences, journalism and polling.

“We have our own sense of what we think is important, and we have an agenda — what we think we should do — in each of these areas of study,” Kohut said, “and part of our mission is to figure out what is the right thing to study.”

Now, that agenda is focused on all things related to the 2012 presidential election. As election season unravels with unrelenting speed, the public and the press will turn to Pew to discover how voter sentiment is changing and to gauge voter reaction to the conventions, the debates and the general campaign. Finally, as Nov. 6 approaches, Pew will publish its final popular vote prediction. Since 2004, Pew has accurately predicted the outcomes of five national elections.

“We get very caught up in measuring the way in which voters’ opinions are changing and how the people that are less committed to both candidates are feeling,” Kohut said.

In today’s lecture, Kohut and Lehrer will discuss the changing compositions of U.S. political parties, the increasing polarization of the U.S. political sphere and how American priorities are changing.

In this day and age, America’s defined political parties are shrinking, Kohut said.

“There’s a smaller number of Americans that think of themselves as Republicans or Democrats and more that see themselves as independents,” he said.

Kohut has been working with and analyzing polls since he was a graduate student studying sociology at Rutgers. He received his undergraduate degree from Seton Hall University in 1964.

“I left an assistantship in graduate school for a part-time job a the Gallup Organization, and I just fell in love with what the Gallup poll was doing,” Kohut said. “I just learned so much about measuring public opinion.”

In 1979, Kohut became president of the Gallup Organization. A decade later, he founded Princeton Survey Research Associates. In 1989, he became the founding director of surveys for The Times Mirror Center. In 2004, he established the Pew Research Associates, for which he received the first Innovators Award from the American Association of Public Opinion Research.

During his storied career, he has calculated and highlighted major shifts in public sentiment. He often contributes to The New York Times and writes columns for Columbia Journalism Review and AOL News. Kohut says one of the biggest surprises in the world of politics during the last decade has been the emergence of a youthful generation with a liberal-minded majority.

“The millennial generation came in as baked-in liberals and baked-in Democrats — it’s a very liberal generation, and there was no sense that that would happen,” Kohut said.

Kohut said one of the interesting aspects of this year’s election is the lack of attention to foreign policy. The pollster said the issues that won President George W. Bush the 2004 election have virtually disappeared from the public opinion radar.

“If you ask people how worried they are, they will say they’re very worried, but it really fell off greatly,” he said., listing Osama bin Laden’s death and the end of the Iraq War as turning points in public opinion.

This year’s election will measure how Americans view their government’s role. Kohut said that since the Obama administration’s ascension, issues regarding the breadth of federal power have gained importance in voters’ minds. That comes as a reversal of a historical trend toward a more activist government.

“Between ’94 right up to ’08, the public was going in the reverse, toward an activist government,” Kohut said. “In 2009, it just about reversed — the trend reversed itself. It was very surprising to see the trend go slowly one way, then the other, and back — now all of the sudden it has switched.”

In addition to regular editorials and columns published in some of the nation’s most-read publications, Kohut has co-authored four books. The most recent, America Against the World, co-written with Bruce Stokes, examined the global rise of anti-American feelings during the 21st century.

Today will be Kohut’s first trip to Chautauqua.

“It’s my job to inform audiences with a keen interest in public affairs, about what’s happening with respect to public opinion in this election,” he said. “And I look forward to doing that with people who are gathered in Chautauqua who have a reputation for being in the know.”