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American Association for Public Opinion Research

In Memoriam: Andrew Kohut, 1942-2015

by Scott Keeter
“I have a real problem with this.” 

That’s a phrase all of us at the Pew Research Center who had the honor of working with Andy Kohut heard often enough, accompanied by the sight of Andy framed in one’s office doorway waving a copy of a clearly unsatisfactory report draft or topline. 

Andy, who passed away September 8 at the age of 73, was a tough boss but an extraordinary mentor to a huge cohort of polling professionals now working in the field. After informing you that your work didn’t measure up, he would sit down with you and gruffly but cheerfully say, “Let’s work through it. You’re burying the lead and confusing the hell out of people.” And then, he would dig in. Out go a few words, flip the bottom to the top, clarify this or that, and bingo, it suddenly made a lot more sense. And he would do this with everyone, from veteran journalists or social scientists on staff to the newest of interns.

Andy learned the art and science of polling from George Gallup and Paul Perry, and later led Gallup for nearly a decade in the 1980s. He worked with former Los Angeles Times editor Donald Kellermann to create the Times Mirror Center for the People & the Press. When Times Mirror ended its support for the center, Andy worked with the Pew Charitable Trusts to take over the funding of the center, and become the Pew Research Center’s founding director. 

A man with working class roots, Andy had an uncanny ear for how a question would sound and what it would mean to the average person – a kind of pollster’s empathy that all of us in the business yearn to have. He also stressed the value of simple language in survey questions, as well as the importance of not asking people about arcane policy issues that they could not possibly be expected to follow. 
As good as he was at writing questionnaires – arguably the hardest and most important part of the survey process – he was a genius at crafting stories about data that used sharp declarative sentences to elevate the important findings out of the thicket of numbers. 
Andy Kohut was a guide to public opinion for millions of Americans through his regular appearances on NPR and The News Hour. But he was also keenly focused on the methodological challenges facing our profession. He championed research on nonresponse and telephone coverage issues, and created a popular political typology at the Pew Research Center. He was a president of AAPOR in 1994-1995 and received the AAPOR Award for Exceptionally Distinguished Achievement in 2005. He was also a recipient of the Roper Center’s Warren Mitofsky Award for Excellence in Public Opinion Research. 

His institutional legacy was the creation of a research center that blended social science and journalism in ways that got the best out of both. Along the way, he expanded the reach of the center to global polling. He chronicled the views of the public around the world as it struggled with the forces of globalization, digital innovation, religious extremism and economic turbulence.

Andy built a career on the generosity of strangers – respondents who gave generously of their time when asked for their opinions and experiences – and he regularly acknowledged the debt he owed people for their time. I never heard him say a disparaging thing about the people, or our respondents. (Occasionally about politicians, yes, but never about the public.) He maintained that the public is not stupid, and championed the notion that properly-measured public opinion is a critical element in the making of good public policy. He will be long remembered for his profound contributions to our profession.