Close window
Pioneering pollster Burns Roper dead at 77
Lisa Marie Pane
Associated Press
Published 01/23/2003

BOSTON -- Burns W. (Bud) Roper, a polling pioneer who relished tracking the twists and turns of American public opinion, died of lung cancer Monday at his home in Bourne, Mass. He was 77.

Roper spent more than five decades in polling after joining the firm started by his father, Elmo, in 1933. Three years later, the older Roper and colleagues including George Gallup established a national reputation for scientific sampling by correctly predicting a landslide reelection victory for President Franklin Roosevelt.

When he retired in 1994, Burns Roper held to his belief that polling remained a viable and valid process. He argued that the public is observant and wise and its opinion is valuable to marketers and politicians alike. But he decried the then-recent ascendance of telephone polling, which often interrupts people at dinner time and invites them to ignore the calls, hang up or even fib.

"The telephone conversation that starts with, 'How are you this evening?' Well, you know what's coming," he said.

An offspring of another polling pioneer, George Gallup Jr., said Wednesday that Roper was "a towering figure. He was honest to the core."

Born in Iowa on Feb. 26, 1925, Roper attended Yale University and entered the Army Air Corps during World War II. As a teenager stationed in England, he flew 35 bombing missions as a pilot or co-pilot. After the war he began working for Elmo Roper and Associates, becoming chairman of the board of what later became known as the Roper Organization, now known as RoperASW.

Shortly after he joined the firm, pollsters widely and wrongly predicted that New York Gov. Thomas Dewey would beat Harry Truman in the 1948 presidential election. Roper persuaded his father and others in the firm to simply admit that they'd blown it -- and try to find out why.

In 1992, Roper faced criticism after a survey commissioned by the American Jewish Committee found that one of five respondents believed that the Holocaust never happened. The poll contained a poorly worded question, and a follow-up survey put the number of disbelievers at just 1 percent.

Roper publicly admitted the blunder, earning praise for his honesty. "That was a case of ethics paying off," he said at the time. "That isn't why you do it, but it's the only thing that works." He was chairman of the Roper Center for Public Opinion Research at the University of Connecticut until 1994. Roper is survived by three sons and a daughter.

© Copyright 2003 Star Tribune. All rights reserved.