A well-known reporter and editor for The New York Times, Adam Clymer bore witness to national politics from 1977 to 2003 as the paper’s polling editor, political editor and chief Washington correspondent. He has two books to his credit (one on the Panama Canal Treaties and conservatives, the other a biography of Edward M. Kennedy), and today still writes occasionally for the Times. In 2003 he served as political director for the 2004 National Annenberg Election Survey in which respondents self-identifying as Indians or Native American were asked a question about their attitudes toward the Washington football team’s name. A large majority said they had no problem with it, and the team’s owner, Dan Snyder, has repeatedly cited this as his justification for refusing to change the name. Recently, ICTMN had the opportunity to learn more about the 2004 survey from Clymer.
The poll results cited incessantly by the Washington football team were generated from one question among hundreds during a 2004 Presidential campaign issues poll—why was that done, since the name was not a campaign issue?
Because only a poll with our huge sample would get a statistically meaningful number of respondents identifying themselves as Indian or Native American. Given that … we were reaching out to 100,000 people, we had the chance to get a valid statistical sample. I wrote the question because I knew the issue came up most autumns and I thought it would make an interesting short piece. We began asking questions on October 7, 2003, and ended September 20, 2004. We had around 66,000 respondents overall, including 768 who identified themselves as Indian or Native American.
Do you think the issue was well-served in a survey of this size and nature, given all the variables involved regarding Native American identification, say, or lack of access to phones, or levels of disassociation from mainstream culture?
I don’t think there was anything wrong with our methodology. All pollsters ask for self-identification on demographics from age to education to ethnicity to religion…. When someone says they are married, you don’t ask for a marriage certificate. The question measured whether the respondents cared about the issue. The fault is in the interpretation given the poll by Dan Snyder and others. My answer when first questioned about this by Courtland Milloy of the The Washington Post stands; If you gave a dinner party for 20 and one person left unhappy because of something that was said or served and the other 19 had a jolly time, was your party a success? No, it was a failure.
Are you surprised by the team’s use of the poll?
I am surprised by the longevity of this poll. You don’t often see people quoting polls that are nine years old. But it’s the main thing that Snyder has to go on.
If you were the owner, would you change the name?
Of course I would change the name! It’s offensive—about as offensive as the way the team is playing today. I don’t call them by the name they use, I refer to them as the Washington Unmentionables.
Do you think they will change it?
Either Snyder or the NFL or the next owner will figure out that there is no point in going out of your way to offend anyone, but I have no idea of how long it will take.
I don’t expect they will change any time soon. The current owner is very rich and very full of himself.
What do you think of the poll today?
It’s a poll. It’s one fact—it doesn’t deal with right or wrong. Polls still find large numbers of people who don’t believe in climate change. I don’t have any doubts about the validity about the poll or how it was conducted. I wouldn’t presume the results would be the same today. My guess would be that the number of people offended by it has increased, but I wouldn’t know by how much.