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Obituaries

Burns 'Bud' Roper, 77; Pollster Who Changed Focus of Questions

January 23, 2003|Claudia Luther | Times Staff Writer

Burns W. "Bud" Roper, the pollster who first posed the now-classic political question, "Do you feel things in this country are generally going in the right direction today, or do you feel that things have pretty seriously gotten off on the wrong track?" died Monday of cancer at his home in Bourne, Mass. He was 77.

"Bud had an ability to ask interesting, intriguing questions that would not come in the ordinary course of business," Richard Rockwell, director of the Roper Center at the University of Connecticut in Storrs, said Wednesday. "But if you really understand the American people, then you can ask a question that no one else would think to ask."

The "wrong track" question, first posed around 1970, is still used as a way of gauging public malaise.

Roper, son of pioneer pollster Elmo Roper, was widely respected in the polling field for his integrity and fairness. Born in Creston, Iowa, he joined his father's business after World War II, during which he flew 35 missions over Germany as a B-17 pilot or co-pilot.

Already a pollster at heart, he would tell people later that he figured when he went out on his flying missions that he had a 50% chance of surviving the war.

"He counted all the days since as bonus," said Warren Mitofsky, another pollster and longtime friend of Roper's.

After the war, Roper looked into becoming a labor leader or an architect, but he left Yale University and in 1946 made polling his life's profession. That was just shortly before one of the major embarrassments of the relatively new polling industry, the "Dewey Defeats Truman" headline so memorably trumpeted by the Chicago Tribune the day after the election. Harry Truman actually defeated Thomas Dewey.

The Roper Center for Public Research was not the only poll to get it wrong, but Bud Roper, typically, urged his father and others in the firm to confront the problem directly in a newspaper column his father wrote at the time.

"I said we've got to say we blew it and not talk about averages over the last 20 years," Roper recounted last year. "Other people were saying that one [wrong call] out of 20 isn't bad."

His view won out, and the firm launched a self-examination to find out what had gone wrong, which led to new and better polling methods, including random sampling.

The Truman-Dewey incident had another benefit: Now everyone in the polling business was aware that polls could affect the outcome of elections.

"What the polls did was make Republicans complacent," Roper said of the 1948 contest. "The unions dragged their supporters to the polls while the fat cats played golf."

The family no longer controls the Roper organization.

Shortly before his retirement in 1994, Roper, who headed the firm that had become Roper ASW, oversaw another embarrassing poll: a 1992 survey commissioned by the American Jewish Committee to investigate opinions about the Holocaust.

Roper pollsters were surprised to find that more than a fifth of those they talked with thought it was possible that the Holocaust had never happened, and that many other people were unsure.

The results shocked everyone, but inspired disbelief in other pollsters. Eventually, the Roper organization agreed that the question that was posed, carefully drafted so as not to invite an agreeable answer, was a confusing double negative. Roper redid the poll and came up with drastically different numbers.

After the flap, Roper went before the American Assn. of Public Opinion to own up to the firm's mistakes.

"This is not the note on which I wanted to conclude my 48-year career in the opinion research field," he said. He said he was sorry that the poll "served to misinform the public, to scare the Jewish community needlessly and to give aid and comfort to the neo-Nazis who have a commitment to Holocaust denial."

Frank Newport, editor in chief of the Gallup Poll, said after learning of Roper's death that he had "faced [the controversy] directly, got involved in conducting additional research to follow up and investigate, and -- this is the most important thing in my estimation -- clearly was more interested in finding and reporting the truth and accuracy of what the public really felt than he was in trying to diffuse blame or sidestep the critics."

Harry O'Neill, vice chairman for Roper ASW and a friend of Roper's, said the controversy "tore his heart out more than it should have."

In later years, Roper decried the use of telephone surveys, saying that they were "turning people off" and skewing poll results.

He didn't like it when other pollsters wrote off the people they surveyed as "stupid oafs."

"I'm a strong defender of the average American," he said. "He may not be terribly articulate or literate, but he's a pretty smart guy.

Roper is survived by sons Bruce of Columbia, Md., David of Hicksville, N.Y., and Douglas of Haddam, Conn.; daughter Candace of Lancaster, Pa.; and three grandchildren.

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