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A conversation with Jim Clifton

  • The Wichita Eagle
  • Published Sunday, Sep. 22, 2013, at 12 a.m.

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For information about purchasing tickets for the Nov. 5 Wichita Metro Chamber of Commerce dinner, go to wichitachamber.org.

Gallup is not the only research organization Jim Clifton has ever led.

At one time, the Nebraska native had a market research company in Lincoln and used to drive to Wichita to meet with clients such as Taco Tico, Pizza Hut and Fourth National Bank.

He said he liked that there were a lot of start-up companies in Wichita and that people enjoyed discussing business.

“There was real good economic energy,” Clifton, chairman and CEO of Gallup, said. “You know, it reminded me a lot of Omaha, and I mean that as quite a compliment.”

He said he doesn’t know if the area still has its “economic mojo,” but he said, “I have a great kinship to Kansans.”

Clifton, who also is the author of “The Coming Jobs War,” is the speaker for the Wichita Metro Chamber of Commerce’s annual meeting on Nov. 5.

Your first polling job was while you were in college, and you had to interview travelers at rest stops. What was that like?

The very first person I interviewed, I was swallowing hard because I was afraid they wouldn’t want to talk to me. … It blew me away how they would answer anything I asked.

And you liked it?

I really enjoyed interviewing and trying to figure out what people were thinking. … It just seemed like gold to me, and it still does over 40 years later.

What do you say to people who are distrustful of polls?

There are polls I’m skeptic of. I’m sometimes skeptic of Gallup polls, too. Seriously. The world has become so complex. … There aren’t that many people who follow the news like you or I do.

But yet you want to know everyone’s opinion?

Dr. (George) Gallup had a great line where he said, “If democracy is about the will of the people, somebody should go find out what that will is.” He didn’t say you should vote the will. He said … you need to know what it is so you’re not working off wrong premises.

Your office is physically near the White House and U.S. Capitol, but you think your organization is more in touch with people than those politicians?

Everybody there’s working on Syria, and they’re working on the Russian deal. … You would think that’s the most pressing issue. … But when you ask the public, they say it’s job and economics and our debt and our no growth. You see the disconnect? But polls can keep reminding leaders that the will of America is we need to get our own economy going. … The problem is when leaders don’t have polls so they know what’s on the minds of people. … They run the risk of making the country worse. … We’re probably experiencing that right now.

What is “The Coming Jobs War,” as you put it?

I’m not an author. I wrote a book just to get some things off my chest. Because the great American dream … used to be things like peace and freedom … freedom to have a family. … But the great American dream is now … just to have a good job.

Which is a problem elsewhere as well?

You could argue that that whole Middle East mess is just because so many people are out of work.

What is your objective with the Gallup World Poll, which regularly surveys people in more than 150 countries?

World leaders have to guess what 7 billion people are thinking, and this created gigantic mistakes. … Nobody saw the Arab Spring coming. That’s because answers to how people are doing never lie in classic economic figures. … We see the World Poll as a report from the people, not just from the transactions of life.

How has social media changed your business?

So far it hasn’t changed our basic business except it’s changed the way we communicate to the world. … Social media picks it up, and our stories are literally around the world in just 24 hours. They’re just everywhere. … The Gallup poll is more prolific than it’s ever been, and I would say the biggest reason is social media.

What else does Gallup do besides polling?

Although we’re most famous for our Gallup poll, the business that we’re in is providing those types of tools in a proprietary way for … customers and employees of corporations. We do exhaustive interviewing of customers and employees and then make recommendations on how companies can have especially organic growth.

Wall Street and the White House say the economy is looking up, but you don’t?

That’s hallucination. The problem with the White House and Wall Street is they’re both special interest groups. Jobs, which is our biggest problem, they follow new customers. … New customers follow new start-ups, and new business start-ups (have) fallen to a historical 40-year low. … That’s a huge problem. Nothing fixes that except having more new businesses start. I keep telling anyone who’s listening … they’re following the wrong data.

What question do people ask you most frequently at parties?

If I’m at parties, just regular parties, they tend to ask me … about the future of America, and are we OK? I’m getting that question (from) everyone. If I’m here with Washington types, they want to know which country is the next one to fall.

But there’s one question you hear more than any other. What is it?

People ask me everywhere I go … “How come we don’t have any jobs?”

Reach Carrie Rengers at 316-268-6340 or crengers@wichitaeagle.com. Follow her on Twitter: @CarrieRengers.

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