Obituaries

Daniel Yankelovich, 92, master of public opinion research

Former presidents Gerald R. Ford and Jimmy Carter listened to a speech by Mr. Yankelovich in Ann Arbor, Mich., in 1983.
Steve Dunbar via The New York Times
Former presidents Gerald R. Ford and Jimmy Carter listened to a speech by Mr. Yankelovich in Ann Arbor, Mich., in 1983.

NEW YORK — Daniel Yankelovich, a pollster, author, and public opinion analyst who for a half-century mirrored the perceptions of generations of Americans about politics, consumer products, social changes, and, not least, themselves, died Friday morning at his home in the La Jolla section of San Diego. He was 92.

His daughter, Nicole Yankelovich Mordecai, said the cause was kidney failure.

Until the late 1950s, market research, when done at all, was a relatively crude way of trying to figure out whether a new soap or a set of kickable tires would go over with the American public. Often it was just guesswork. No corporation today would risk introducing a product without knowing, in advance, how well it is likely to sell, what it should look like, what to call it, and how to package, advertise and distribute it.

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Mr. Yankelovich, an ebullient man with a passion for research, was part of a coterie of pollsters who changed all that. He came along at the right time with the idea that all kinds of academic discipline — psychology, sociology, statistical analysis, and other offerings from the course catalogs — could be harnessed to the service of business, government, and the masses.

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One of the nation’s most respected social researchers, Mr. Yankelovich devised innovative surveys of small representative groups not only to track American preferences in cars and toothpaste, but also to understand the values and goals of ordinary people — what made them feel moral, happy, or fulfilled, or miserable and marginalized in an affluent but impersonal society.

Unlike the pioneering pollsters George Gallup, Elmo Roper, and Louis Harris, Mr. Yankelovich did not stress election results, though he accurately called some presidential races, and his work helped national leaders, including Presidents Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton, shape political agendas and domestic and foreign policies.

He focused more on detailing, and explaining, shifting trends in American life: the “generation gap” of the 1960s, the rise of the women’s movement in the 1970s, the neoconservatism of many young people in the 1980s, the emergence of a “me first” self-indulgence in the 1990s, and in recent years a widespread feeling that Americans have no voice in the decisions that affect their lives.

“People feel they don’t have that voice, that they are not consulted, they’re not listened to, their views don’t really count,” Mr. Yankelovich told Bill Moyers in a 2002 PBS interview.

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But he offered a suggestion: “We find when we bring average Americans together that they listen to one another, that they can contribute and that they can build, develop a vision of what they want our society to be like. And it’s really inspiring.”

The author of a dozen books and many articles for newspapers, magazines, and academic journals, Mr. Yankelovich lectured at Harvard, the New School in New York, the University of California at San Diego, and other universities, and was on the boards of corporations and cultural organizations.

In the 1970s, he began The New York Times/Yankelovich poll and developed many survey techniques that The Times and CBS News later jointly used in their coverage of politics and public opinion polling.

In 1975, Mr. Yankelovich and Cyrus R. Vance, who was later Carter’s secretary of state, founded Public Agenda, a nonprofit foundation that used opinion research and town hall meetings to engage public officials, educators, and citizens on questions of foreign and domestic policy.

While Mr. Yankelovich was not a doctrinaire liberal, he expressed dismay at what he saw as the decline of progressive traditions, and often called for greater social responsibility on the part of government and corporate America. But he also sounded conservative themes in speeches and interviews, praising the work ethic, calling for welfare reforms, and lamenting a loss of old-fashioned respect.

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He was highly regarded by colleagues for his professional ethics, his imaginative and well-documented polling surveys, and the quality of his statistical analyses. But critics sometimes faulted him, saying he worked too fast on complex data, used too much social-scientific jargon in his writing, and expressed a habitual optimism that bordered on Pollyanna-ism.

Some of his books were extended arguments, often exhortatory, for self-improvement or for conflict resolution; others were expressions of confidence in democracy or the virtue of ethics in business affairs. The titles reflected his hopeful outlook: “New Rules: Searching for Self-Fulfillment in a World Turned Upside Down” (1981), “Coming to Public Judgment: Making Democracy Work in a Complex World” (1991), “The Magic of Dialogue: Transforming Conflict Into Cooperation” (1999), and “Profit With Honor: The New Shape of Market Capitalism” (2006).

In 2012, Mr. Yankelovich founded the Yankelovich Center for Social Science Research at the University of California at San Diego. He later endowed the center with a multimillion-dollar bequest.

Daniel Yankelovich was born in Boston on Dec. 29, 1924, one of two children of Frederick Yankelovich and the former Sadie Mostow. His mother died when he was a boy, and his father, a real estate salesman, became a house painter during the Great Depression.

He graduated from Boston Latin School and enrolled at Harvard, but left for Army service in World War II. Returning to Harvard, he earned a bachelor’s degree in 1946 and a master’s in 1950.

In 1959, Mr. Yankelovich married Hasmieg Kaboolian. The couple had one daughter, Nicole, and were divorced. In 1991, he married a researcher, Mary Komarnicki. She was killed in 1995 in a car accident in San Diego in which Mr. Yankelovich was injured. He later married Barbara Lee; they were separated at his death. In recent years he lived with his companion, Laura Nathanson, at White Sands La Jolla, a retirement community.

Besides his daughter, Nicole, and Nathanson, he leaves a granddaughter and a sister.

He was among the first, in the 1960s, to refer to the postwar generation as baby boomers, and he tracked their lives — from hula-hoops, coonskin caps, and Barbie dolls to their rise to success in educated two-earner families and beyond. In their mature years, he found a “nameless yearning” for deeper meaning, which he called “submerged idealism,” lying “just below the surface of the pragmatism and calculation.”

His studies of American youths became the basis for a 1969 CBS television news special, “Generations Apart.” Later surveys focused on college students’ attitudes and drug use.