Inquiring Minds

By Christina Pazzanese, Harvard Gazette

If you know Peter Hart, it’s not hard to find him on the first Tuesday in November. For the last 48 years, Hart has spent every national election night working into the wee hours, first at CBS News and later at NBC News headquarters as one of the nation’s leading public opinion analysts.

“What I love about my profession is I get to go deep. I get to find out what’s on your mind and what you’re thinking and why it’s important,” said Hart, who is teaching public opinion techniques and strategies as the Visiting Murrow Lecturer of the Practice of Press and Public Policy at the Joan Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics, and Public Policy this fall.

Good polling isn’t about the daily horse race of who’s up or down, but what moves voters.

“I certainly look at myself as someone who tries to understand what’s underneath,” he said in an interview. “It’s the ability to get at the guts of what people are thinking and where they’re coming from. If you get the visceral reactions, then you really get a sense of who they are and what they’re about.”

Hart, who regularly teaches at the University of California, Berkeley, said his course, “Polling in the Real World: Using Survey Research to Win Elections and Govern,” isn’t about training the next generation of pollsters or diving headlong into arcane subjects like regression analysis or statistical variations.

“This is about the ability to understand politics in the real world — how does polling work, what’s the purpose of it, and [how to develop] the ability to critically think and understand polling,” he said.

Students produce group projects that incorporate focus groups, surveys, tabulations, analyses, reports, and presentations, and they hear from political notables such as David Axelrod, a top adviser and strategist for President Obama’s 2008 and 2012 presidential campaigns.

One recent class featured a lively, candid talk with former Massachusetts Gov. Michael Dukakis, who admitted that his failure to gather the necessary information from the field and to grasp the significance of polling data on hand helped to derail his 1988 presidential run.

“I blew it, to tell you the truth,” Dukakis told students, noting that candidates then weren’t as absorbed with polling or as savvy about what the data revealed as they are today.

“My point to every one of them is: I have no idea what you’re going to do, but I will tell you personally and professionally, you will use polling the rest of your life,” said Hart. “And what I want you to get out of this is the ability to understand what is a good poll, what’s a bad poll, how do you construct a poll, and how do you analyze a poll, and what do you do with the information once you have it.” read more

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Peter D. Hart, Visiting Murrow Lecturer of the Practice of Press and Public Policy

Peter D. Hart, Visiting Murrow Lecturer of the Practice of Press and Public Policy

Photo Credit: Rose Lincoln/Harvard Gazette

"I get to find out what’s on your mind and what you’re thinking and why it’s important."