On politics—polls, projections and show biz
•BY MORRIS EDELSON-
Professor Richard W. Murray, of the
University of Houston Political Science
Department, is the city's best-known political analyst. He has had a busy year in
1980, with local, state and presidential
election prediction for local and national
media, candidates and students and fans
of the election game. Nationally, Murray
is known as an interpreter of Houston,
the city being an interesting urban phenomenon running counter to the trend of
decay and contraction in America's major
Murray has pointed out in a soon-to-
be-published analysis that Houston alone
of all American cities continues to grow
as much currently as it did in the 50's and
60's. The basis for this growth is a continuing economic vitality in the energy
industries, the companies which own the
city. Houston is a one-horse town, with
a still-healthy steed (oil) outperforming
the multiple mounts of cities like Detroit
(autos) or Seattle (airplanes).
The last economic frontier in the
country, Houston exhibits frontier styles
in culture and politics, Murray believes.
Only very recently have sectors of the
public begun to fight over public issues
such as the quality of the environment,
racial equality, and who governs what for
whom. A growth and development elite
has controlled the all-important mayor's
office which has facilitated unregulated
sprawl and acquisition. Things may be
changing because the anarchy inherent in
laissez-faire capita/ism has created too
much hardship for too many: The Chamber of Commerce's banging boom drum
does not cover the stench of uncollected
garbage, the sight of broken-down buses,
the jarring potholes, and the growing
areas of substandard housing.
Politics, as the awareness of disenfran-
M orris Edelson is an editor of Breakthrough and a former writer for the
New York Times.
chisement spreads even to Houston, will
become more interesting, says Murray.
He expects higher turnouts for political
events, more party awareness, and a
greater challenge to the business elites
that are entrenched in power in Houston.
The 20th Century is on its way, he warns
in this Breakthrough interview, conducted in his office, with Morris Edelson.
Morris Edelson: What do you call your
Richard Murray: There's really no formal,
incorporated name. I do a number of
things politically. Basically, I teach political science. But I do a good deal of political polling, as well as election projections
for the news media. That is quite a separate thing from polling. Polling tries to
find out what people's attitudes are and
just incidentally how they might vote.
Projections you see on election night,
people indicating how the vote is going,
and, in important elections, why it is
going as it is. It's mostly show biz. Polling
is fairly serious, much more scientific.
ME: On the basis of polling can you
RM: Yes, you can. Also I try to do a lot
of aggregate analysis, past voting patterns
of areas' previous votes. There is a lot of
consistency in voting. Things change, but
they change within limits. What polls do—
if you have that as background—you can
see what things are likely to happen this
year, what will be different.
ME: Do you use computers in polling, or
a trick-or-treat door-to-door approach?
RM: Computers. There's no great magic
associated with them—it's just that when
you process large amounts of data it is
more efficient to do it with a machine
than by hand. Computers are inexpensive
now. You can buy computer time for
relatively small amounts of money. The
major problems in polling are the human
ones. Designing surveys, getting the field
research done, coding the data. We don't
have too many people knocking on doors.
I use telephones because it is inordinately
expensive to do personal interviewing.
The differences in accuracy are not great
enough to warrant the expense.
If you did a set of interviews in a Congressional district, you are talking about
$30,000 to $40,000 for personal interviews, and that's prohibitive. For $3,000
or $4,000 you might be able to do a comparable telephone survey.
ME: You've done polling for how many
RM: About ten years.
ME: What trends do you see?
RM: I would say by way of background
that in Houston you don't have a very
politically-oriented community. The politics here are not for many people a sport
or a game, something that people are tremendously interested in. I am, and you
are, and most of the readers of Breakthrough are, but we're a minority. That's
Houston. It's a city that has grown up
very quickly in recent years; it's attracted
people because of the economic opportunity. Diverse populations have come
here—blacks and white Southerners,
Mexican-American, Yankees, and now
There is one consistency: the economic opportunities are better here. The newcomers enter a system that is not highly
organized politically, like, say Chicago
was in the 20's or 30's. No machine is
here; parties are not very strong. Most of
these people don't know much about
local politics. They're here to make a
living. There's lots of alternate activities.
They don't get involved, and the only
elections that draw very heavy participation are presidential elections. That's a
universal race. The issues and candidates
The second level of interest here seems
to be the mayoral elections. That's because there are conflicts in Houston, particularly in recent years along racial lines,