Scott Keeter is director of survey research for the Pew Research Center in Washington, DC. He is co-author of four books, including A New Engagement? Political Participation, Civic Life, and the Changing American Citizen (published this year by Oxford University Press), The Diminishing Divide: Religion's Changing Role in American Politics, (Brookings Institution Press), What Americans Know about Politics and Why It Matters (Yale University Press), and Uninformed Choice: The Failure of the New Presidential Nominating System (Praeger). His other published research includes articles and book chapters on survey methodology, political communications and behavior, and health care topics.
Since 1980 Keeter has been an election night analyst of exit polls for NBC News. He previously served as chair of the Standards Committee of the American Association for Public Opinion Research, and will be Councillor-at-Large for the Association during 2007-2008.
From 1998 to 2002 he was chair of the Department of Public and International Affairs at George Mason University, and previously taught at Rutgers University and Virginia Commonwealth University, where he also directed the Survey Research Laboratory from 1988-1991.
Interview with Scott Keeter
Is a citizen self-government possible and important to maintaining a democratic polity?
Self-governance is essential to a democratic policy – indeed it’s definitional. Of course, there are many versions of self-governance. What is not possible in a large industrial society is a government of the sort idealized by the New England Town Meeting. But a polity in which most citizens pay enough attention to be able to cast informed votes, and in which many regularly communicate their opinions and preferences to policy makers, is very possible. Even public opinion polls play a role in this. If citizens know enough to make informed judgments about the issues, polls can measure these judgments and transmit this information to elected officials and other public officials.
How are Americans under 30 responding to civic and political life in the United States and should politicians be alert to their form of engagement?
Young people everywhere start out slowly with regards to political participation, so it’s no surprise that they would not be engaged at the level of their elders. But our research suggests that the newest crop of young people is doing well on the civic side, with higher levels of volunteer activity than in the past and a significant amount of engagement in what we call the use of “political voice.” On the more explicitly political side, the results of 2004 election were encouraging, as voter turnout among the young spiked more than among other age groups. This suggests that efforts to mobilize them were effective – efforts made by nonprofit organizations and by the political organizations. Perhaps politicians should awaken to the possibility that young people can be engaged if asked.
What is the relationship between politics and faith in the United States from your research and exploration of these two subjects in your book, The Diminishing Divide: Religion's Changing Role in American Politics? Do you believe that there needs to be a divide between church and state or should this divide be conditional upon what issue is at stake? Can you see this philosophy now gaining momentum in other countries. It certainly seems to have creeped into how Australian politicians are currently campaigning federally.
People of faith bring their religious values into their political choices, and this is entirely appropriate. In a very religious nation such as the US, it’s not surprising that we would see this connection. The churches in the US also have played an important role in mobilizing people to political activity, as exemplified in the black churches during the civil rights struggle of the 1950s and 1960s (and since), and in the white evangelical churches in the 1990s and 2000s. But the divide between church and state has been an important one for US politics, one that has helped guarantee the independence of churches from political influence and the government from church influence. The existence of a multiplicity of sects has given religion in the US a strong and healthy dynamic and has helped to insulate the government from excessive pressure from any one religious tradition. The public here has generally approved of the level of religious rhetoric used by Pres. Bush but has also expressed concern about too much influence from religious conservatives.
Is the current presidential nominating system in the US inadequate to support or sustain a democratic community? How does the new system of nominating presidential candidates influence citizens to make decisions in their selection of political leaders? How would you describe the role of the media for educated decision making?
The current presidential nominating system is in bad shape, according to most observers. The significant frontloading this year has raised the specter of a year-long presidential campaign, which is probably barely tolerable in an unusual year of no incumbent but intolerable if someone were running for re-election in this climate. No one really knows how voters will be affected by the current configuration, but the assumption is that the outcome in the early states will have an enormous effect on how voters in the large states currently slated to vote in early February actually vote. There is little time for reconsideration and reflection on the candidates’ records. Most voters will have voted within a month of the start of the process. The media can do little after the early states have cast their vote; the “horse race” dynamic will be all-consuming.
What has your research indicated about why public opinion about the war in Iraq has turned negative four years after the launch of the U.S. led invasion into Iraq on March 19, 2003? What percentage of Americans have regretted the decision to use military force and are there any distinguishing factors about this cohort? How do you envisage this whole issue progressing in the next year or so?
We have tracked public opinion about the war very closely. The public has been pretty divided about the war since late 2004 – about half saying we made the right decision, and half saying it was wrong. It was only in the past six months that we have seen a majority support withdrawal of troops before the situation has been stabilized. I think the change is directly related to events in Iraq – the public has grown increasingly negative about the way things are going and the likelihood of success. The future of the issue depends almost entirely on how things go in Iraq. Much of the public does not want to “lose” the war, or see Iraq fall into chaos. But they will be willing to abandon the effort if they perceive that victory is impossible. If that outcome seems inevitable, the public will desert the president.
In the designing and conducting of surveys for research, what do you regard as being essential for a survey to be an effective tool of research?
No single aspect of a survey can be singled out. Good survey research is the product of a combination of a sensible and well designed questionnaire (probably the most important element), a sound sampling design, and effective administration of the survey. The questionnaire is something that all us can evaluate – read the questions and consider whether you think they are fair, understandable to ordinary citizens, and comprehensive with respect to the subject matter. It’s harder for non-specialists to evaluate the sample and the survey administration, but if the survey is conducted by a respected organization, it is probably okay, since places like Pew, Gallup, or other national survey organizations have their reputations at stake whenever they are associated with a survey.