Q&A: The sun is still rising

From founding ESPN, to innovative survey research, to being an author with a positive view of America’s future, Scott Rasmussen has always used technology to bring fresh insights to American culture. American Experiment President John Hinderaker recently interviewed the iconic political observer.

I’ve always been fascinated by your early life when, among other things, you were one of the founders of ESPN. Tell us about that.

Scott Rasmussen: It was such a long time ago that people can’t even remember what the ‘70s were like before ESPN. There was only one college football game on per weekend. Most professional sports couldn’t get their games broadcast at all. My father and I were both working with a hockey team, the New England Whalers, and we tried everything to get the Whalers on TV. We then learned about this brilliant new technology, satellite, that could send a signal around America for less money than it cost to send the same signal around Connecticut via traditional landlines.

So, we signed up, got a position on the satellite, and then had to figure out what to do with it for 24 hours a day. My father and I had a bitter argument about this, and I got mad at him and said, “I don’t care what you do. It’s your transponder. Show football all weekend, see if I care.” For the first time all morning he didn’t yell back but said, “Not football, but sports—all weekend long.” We were convinced we had this idea that would change the world, and we were afraid if we told anybody about it they would steal it from us. Instead, we went to eight broadcast companies and all of them laughed us out of the room.

You and your father sold ESPN at some point quite a few years ago, correct?

We started the company with a cash advance and a credit card; Getty put up $100 million, so they thought they should have control of the company. They sold to Texaco in ‘84 and that’s when we got out. It’s been a long, long time but I’m very proud of what we did at ESPN.

Let’s talk about what you’ve been doing in recent years. You founded the Rasmussen Reports, one of the principle polling organizations in the United States, which sold a few years ago. It seems to me polling as an industry has become a much more significant part of the news landscape and the political landscape than it ever used to be.

Absolutely. I think if you looked in the database from the 1980s you would find three national polls about Tip O’Neill, speaker of the house. There were three polls a week out on the speaker of the house then. We were the first firm to poll all 50 states for a presidential election, and that was in 2000.

Why is that? Wouldn’t Gallup or somebody else do similar polling?

We were pushing a new technology. One of them was the internet. I figured out early on that I could pop up on the internet and look as big as Gallup by presenting information directly to consumers. Everybody else was working through network anchors, but I figured people were skeptical of the anchors and would like to see the data for themselves. The other push was automated polling (now called IDR or robo polls), which let me get more polls out on a less expensive basis. And it let me pull larger sample sizes.

I also realized I could run a poll one night and if the results were puzzling, I could go back the next night and ask why. It let me research issues on a real-time basis and let me experiment with state by state polls, among other things.

I’ve always thought the Rasmussen Reports asked thoughtful, creative questions that would generate interesting answers. It seems to me most pollsters are not creative. They ask the same boring questions, “right track/wrong track,” “approve/ disapprove.”

There’s an obsession in the world of politics today with the techniques of asking a precise question. It’s important to talk about methodology, but if you’re not asking the right questions it doesn’t make any difference. There are things outside of politics and life and you need to ask about them, knowing that people look at things from a different perspective. Regarding healthcare, most pollsters think people without insurance want the federal government to provide them with insurance. Therefore, anything that threatens that is a problem. Our research found some other numbers. There were 15 million Americans who, before the Obamacare mandate was repealed, would’ve dropped out of Obamacare if they could. It occurred to me they might be happy to see the mandate repealed, not see it as a disaster. You begin to think through things like this differently and then you figure out how to ask it as a question. There is no perfect question, but the best way to find out data is to start with a question and ask it from six different angles.

You’ve written a new book.

Yes, it’s called, The Sun Is Still Rising: Politics Has Failed But America Will Not.

You seem to be mostly optimistic when you talk about elections. How would you summarize your takeaways from the 2018 midterm elections?

I am optimistic. I may be very pessimistic about our political system, but I am very optimistic about America’s future—although I think it will get worse before it gets better. I look at the elections as part of a larger storyline. For the last generation, neither political party has found a way to connect with the American people. We’ve had four presidents in a row who came into office with their party in control of Congress and they lost control. That’s never happened before. We have a very polarized team-sport mindset right now; team power is so important. Bob Menendez, a Democrat, gets reelected in New Jersey despite people not liking him at all, same with Keith Ellison in Minnesota. And there are Republicans who were carried across the finish line simply because of their party identification.

We are a system that is struggling with a changing world. All of American history was about institutions getting bigger and more centralized and more homogenized up until the 1970s. Political power followed that path. Since the ‘70s everything in society is decentralizing. Our smartphones give us incredible power that presidents never used to have, but our government is still in that centralizing mode. The disconnect between a decentralizing society and a centralizing government creates the tension we experience right now, and neither political party has figured out a way to address it. We’ll keep bouncing around about a very small number of congressional seats until something happens.

You have said the word liberal became anathema back in the 1980s. If voters became convinced a democratic candidate was a liberal, it was curtains for him. Some of that’s going on now with conservatives. Tell us about that.

Back in the ‘80s democrats ran from the “liberal” label because otherwise they knew they couldn’t win an election. That’s the reason some liberals call themselves progressives now. It has happened more recently with the term “political conservative,” and while it’s still not as unpopular as “political liberal,” it’s trending in that direction—particularly among women voters. That’s a big change. We heard about suburban, affluent women being a little less supportive of Republicans in this election, and part of it is they’re turned off by the word conservative. To them it doesn’t mean a particular set of ideas, and there’s something about the term that they perceive it to mean.

As the liberals started calling themselves progressives, is there some other word we conservatives could use?

I’m sure there will be, but I don’t know what the magic word is. We’re going to spend time understanding what people believe conservatism means. It’s like the word socialism. Does it mean what you and I grew up believing it meant, at least to many voters? Most people who say they like socialism think it’s a kinder, gentler form of capitalism. They don’t think it means more government involvement in the economy, they don’t think it means buying the nation’s largest companies or taking them over, they don’t think it means higher taxes. I can’t say they’re wrong, because that’s what they perceive it to be, but that word has shifted, the connotations have shifted, and we need to understand why.

People who say they’re a socialist don’t necessarily mean they want to be like Venezuela.

Not even close. They’re not thinking of what Bernie Sanders is peddling. They are thinking about capitalism, and how everybody recognizes capitalism has produced incredible prosperity, but there are some rough edges they want to smooth off. For some, socialism sounds like a way to do that. For others, free markets are a way to do that. It’s important to recognize people believe there is a difference between free markets and capitalism.

I’ve always said that instead of using the word capitalism we should say free enterprise. I think that has a better sound. Have you ever polled this?

Not recently, but I’m going to explore that in the coming months. We poll 1,000 registered voters every night, asking them how the president is doing, you know, some of those boring questions, because you need that as a baseline set of information. Every week we ask how they perceive the economy. We also ask a series of questions on a rotating basis about perceptions on immigration or other issues. It’s important to go out every night and ask some questions about what’s happening in the news right now or other topics so I can explore what people are thinking about.

It’s a learning exercise. At times I see data that doesn’t make sense to me. In my mind, when a voter says A to question one and B to question two, that doesn’t add up to me. I want to know what it is they see. I want to understand what makes them tick and sometimes it takes a while to figure out.

You sold Rasmussen Reports a few years ago, but you’re back in the polling business now.

We post poll results every day, and you can also sign up to get a daily e-newsletter. I include things in the newsletter that I don’t put on the site to tie it more into the daily commentary flow. Our daily content is not always on purely political topics. I write a number of daily pieces for Ballotpedia that intersect culture, technology, and politics—to me they’re all intertwined. For instance, the way you look at self-driving cars has something to do with the way you look at the political world.

How would you sum up the reasons why you’re optimistic about the country’s future?

One reason I wrote the book was to give a sense of optimism. I recognize that culture and technology lead our nation forward, not the political process. So, I can look at our political process and realize it’s badly broken, but I’m not counting on it to move us forward. When I see what technology’s making available to us, I’m optimistic. When I look out and see what the younger generation is thinking about, I’m optimistic. At the end of the day, I’m optimistic because 93 percent of voters believe what I call the American Creed. We have the right to live our lives as we see fit so long as we respect the rights of others to do the same. That core commitment to freedom is an important part of who we are as a nation, and it is still there. As long as we have that, there will be daily progress made. Younger voters are excited about this change. Ron Fournier, a great journalist, went to the Institute of Politics at the Kennedy Harvard School a few years ago. He was horrified when he asked how many students were planning to enter government service or political service. Not a single hand went up. Every single student wanted to get involved in making a better world and creating social justice. They wanted to do things where they could have an impact and be held accountable; so, for many of them that meant entrepreneurship.