Andrew Kohut, Pioneering Pollster of U.S. Voters, Dies at 73

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Andrew Kohut
Pollster Andrew Kohut. Source: The Pew Research Center

Andrew Kohut, a leading practitioner and analyst of public-opinion polls during the three decades they came to dominate coverage of U.S. elections and make inroads among a global audience, has died. He was 73.

He died Tuesday at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore from the effects of leukemia, his son, Matthew Kohut, said in a telephone interview.

From 2004 to 2012, Andrew Kohut was founding director and president of the Washington-based Pew Research Center, which surveys U.S. public opinion on politics, public policy and the news media. He also directed the group’s Center for the People & the Press starting in 1993. Trained at the Gallup Organization, which he led for 10 years, Kohut offered commentary in print and on radio and television, and testified in Congress on the world’s view of the U.S., one of his specialties in the decade after the 9/11 terror attacks.

“He has become the man to see when polling questions arise -- the public face of public opinion polling,” the Washington Examiner wrote in a 2008 profile. Kohut called Pew a “fact tank,” a “new kind of Washington organization that collects information and disseminates it in an understandable and analytical way.”

Bad Call

In January 2008, he asserted in a much-discussed opinion piece published by the New York Times that Hillary Clinton’s surprise victory in the New Hampshire primary -- setting the stage for what would be her prolonged battle with Barack Obama - - was due to anti-black sentiment among poorer, less-educated white voters, views that had not been captured by public-opinion polls. He called the New Hampshire miscall “one of the most significant miscues in modern polling history.”

Starting in 1991, working with Madeleine Albright before she became U.S. secretary of state, Kohut expanded public opinion polling around the world through the Pew Global Attitudes Project. A 1991 benchmark survey, the Pulse of Europe, gave them a front-row seat as the Iron Curtain fell.

Following the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, the Pew Global Attitudes Project was expanded to evaluate the image of the U.S. around the world and to measure attitudes about terrorism and the Islamic faith.

America’s Image

“America was very poorly regarded in the aftermath of the war in Iraq, and issues arose not only in the Muslim world, where the American image went from bad to worse, but also among our allies in all parts of the world,” Kohut recalled in a 2011 oral-history interview with the American Association for Public Opinion Research.

Other Pew Research Center initiatives include the Project for Excellence in Journalism, the Pew Internet & American Life Project, the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life, the Pew Hispanic Center and the Pew Social and Demographic Trends.

Kohut co-wrote four books, including “America Against the World” and “The Diminishing Divide: Religion’s Changing Role in American Politics.”

“His career mirrored the rise of the 24-hour news cycle,” Matthew Kohut said.

Kohut was born on Sept. 2, 1942, in Rochelle Park, New Jersey, according to the Examiner profile. His father was Peter Kohut, a glassblower, and his mother was the former Lena Grieco, who worked in manufacturing jobs.

He graduated from Seton Hall University in South Orange, New Jersey, in 1964 and was pursuing a graduate degree in sociology at the state’s Rutgers University when fate intervened.

Joins Gallup

As Kohut explained it in his oral-history interview, his first wife was pregnant with their first child and he needed to save money to pay for the delivery. He was earning just $2,300 a year as a graduate assistant at Rutgers. At the advice of a professor, he landed a part-time job paying $85 a week at Princeton-based Gallup, about 30 minutes away.

“I was able to save my $600 to pay for this baby,” he recalled in 2011. “And that’s how I got into public opinion polling, through lack of universal health care.”

He soon left grad school for a fulltime job at Gallup, working with the founder, George Gallup, and his chief statistician, Paul Perry. Before gravitating to public opinion, Kohut focused on commercial market research, working with clients such as filmmaker Columbia Pictures.

“I got this report about ‘Easy Rider,’ which showed that the first-night audience liked it better than did New York women who watched ‘Funny Girl,’” he recalled in the 2011 interview. “I thought, ‘My God, this is going to be big.’”

Times Mirror

Kohut became Gallup’s president in 1979, when Perry retired. During his presidency, he began a long affiliation with the Times Mirror Co., beginning with a 1985 survey of American public opinion about the news media.

Gallup’s 1989 sale to Selection Research Inc., a market research company based in Lincoln, Nebraska, led to layoffs and a shift in the company’s focus from social issues to market research, the New York Times reported in 1990. Kohut ceded the presidency and became head of the public-opinion research division, lasting one year before striking out on his own and founding Princeton Survey Research Associates.

Kohut said in his 2011 oral-history interview that he favored the sale and left after one year because he wanted to try “something different.” In 1990, though, the Times quoted him saying, “The culture inside Gallup has changed.”

Through his work at Princeton Survey Research Associates, Kohut became director of the Times Mirror Center for the People & the Press in 1993. The center was a casualty of Times Mirror budget cuts starting in 1995, and Kohut found a new partner, the Pew Charitable Trusts, the Philadelphia- and Washington-based nonprofit created by the descendants of Sun Oil Co. founder Joseph N. Pew and his wife, Mary Anderson Pew.

Kohut is survived by his wife, Diane Colasanto, who he met while working at Gallup, where she was senior vice president for opinion research. He also is survived by his first wife, the former Marybeth Lyhne, and their children Matthew Kohut and Amy Kohut, and an adopted son, Nicholas Cohn.

With assistance from Stephen Miller in New York.

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