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In Any Survey, a True Pro

January 24, 2003

Burns W. "Bud" Roper, son of pioneering pollster Elmo Roper and himself a pioneering taker of the American pulse, died this week at 77. On a scale of one to 100, with one being too short and 80 being a long while, that's a pretty good life.

George Gallup Jr., another polling son of another polling pioneer, called Roper "a towering figure." In a profession stained by trick or ignorant questions and malleable results crafted to suit clients' commercial or political goals, Roper stood for integrity and accountability. Several times he successfully urged peers to admit mistakes, to be as open as pollsters wanted those they surveyed to be. His voice could sound lonely, especially when decrying the alienating phone polling now so common during the dinner hour.

Roper was an accidental innovator. After flying B-17s in Europe, he planned to be a union leader or architect. He went into polling with his father instead. He invented tracking questions that reveal much of what an often inarticulate, inattentive public feels, if not says, as in: "Do you feel your life has been positively impacted by polls advancing into most phases of American society? Or do you feel things have gotten off track through polling?"

Right track/wrong track polling has become a crucial tool for companies and politicians to discern America's mood. You can bet with 100% certainty that voters in Roper's native Iowa are already being tracked by all the presidential hopefuls.

Roper and his profession helped change, among many things, how American politics -- and sometimes government -- are conducted and followed, emphasizing the measurable horse-race elements more than their content. Polling not only tracks but shapes the very opinion it's allegedly merely measuring. Even key stump speech phrases are now crafted from polling.

With his enduring curiosity and polling skills, Roper gave Americans keen insight into themselves, their tastes, intentions and leanings. How those results then get manipulated in a competitive, commercialized world is another issue, one requiring conscientious use by the media and more careful reading by information consumers buried in data avalanches. Did you know, for instance, that 100% of those reading this editorial are intelligent, kindhearted people?

The polling debate -- and the clamor over its more glaring mistakes or distortions -- will probably continue forever. Do the words "Florida" and "exit polling" ring any lamentable bells? But the positive verdict on Bud Roper's contributions is unanimous -- with a margin of error of plus or minus zero.

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