1996 National Issues Convention Deliberative Poll

1996 National Issues Convention Deliberative Poll


Problems and Purpose

In the words of Fishkin, the purpose of this poll is not to give “a picture of public opinion as it is, it’s a window on American public opinion as it might be, if people became more engaged in the issues.”[2] This is, of course, more a definition of the deliberative poll in general than a point to be made about this poll in particular. Because this is the first large scale deliberative poll in the States, the purpose was most likely to simply show the value of the method itself. The majority of problems came in convincing the selected delegates to travel to Austin for three days. In one case the organizers even had to hire someone to milk a delegate’s cow in her absence. [1]


The history of this event is embedded deeply in the history of the deliberative poll as a whole. In 1996, the idea of a deliberative poll was still fairly new. First proposed by Fishkin in 1988 in an Atlantic Monthly article, and later in his 1991 book ‘Democracy and Deliberation: New Directions for Democratic Reform’. [6] After an attempt at a National Deliberative poll in 1992 failed due to lack of funding, it took 2 more years for a real world experiment to come about. Manchester, England hosted 301 citizens on April 15-18, 1994 to discuss policy proposals dealing with crime. The success of his British experiment put the momentum behind Fishkin, and he began planning the National Issues Convention for the 1996 United States election season. [4]

Originating Entities and Funding

James Fishkin along with many others, raised around $3.5 million for the event. PBS’s Democracy Project provided part of the funding. [1]

Participant Selection

As with all deliberative polls, the participants where a random, representative sample of the population. A door-to-door pre-NIC survey was conducted by the National Opinion Research Center at the University of Chicago (NORC). [1] 72% of those contacted participated at this stage. 50% of those participants went to Austin for the NIC, making the overall response rate 36%. All told, 459 people participated. [4]

Deliberation, Decisions, and Public Interaction

PBS aired 9.5 hours from the NIC, split between two broadcasts and their repeats. [3] Saturday January 20th Republican primary candidate Richard Lugar was in Austin for a televised Q&A. Steve Forbes, Lamar Alexander, and Phil Gramm communicated via satellite in the event hosted by Jim Lehrer, the PBS news anchor. The following day, Vice President Al Gore did another Q&A with participants, again aired by PBS and NPR. Nielsen ratings for the broadcasts and reruns on Sunday night averaged 1.1, similar to other political programs in the time period. [4]

Influence, Outcomes, and Effects

Asked point blank in a televised interview, James Fishkin says that the NIC did accomplish his goals. In his words, “the people came, they thought about the issues, and they changed in dramatic and coherent ways.”[2] The data shows that dramatic change was not the norm on most issues however. In 7 out of 81 survey items, the majority opinion shifted after the NIC, and 20 total of the 81 had significant changes after the event. The largest change of all, was in the participants attitudes towards government. The idea that "public officials care a lot about what people like me think" jumped up to 60% after the NIC, compared with 41% before. In a wider survey, those who had watched the NIC at home even felt more empowered to act in the political sphere. [4] The experiment’s success was dampened by the extreme cost and relatively small audience. Evidenced by the lack of large scale national deliberative polls since the NIC, this experiment was a one-time success that has proven a point about the method itself, but has and likely will not merit a repeat event of the same magnitude. 

Analysis and Lessons Learned

The 20th anniversary of the NIC came and went with little to no fanfare, and that is quite telling as to how the event shaped the modern deliberative poll. This case is deliberative democracy in the grandest scale, covering the width of a continent and a population referred to as ‘the melting pot’. Yet, it seems that only the occasional specialist in political participation even remembers it happening at all. The National Issues Convention served as a launching point and validation method for the deliberative polling method for the American people. In addition to 500+ print articles in the weeks following the NIC; CNN, ABC, and PBS all gave significant airtime to the Convention and Fishkin to explain the purpose, layout and results of the event. [4] After the NIC, small scale deliberative polls took off, totaling over 50 in the following ten years alone. Since Fishkin has trademarked the term ‘Deliberative Poll’ he has either conducted or advised every single deliberative poll since their inception.(Accurate to May 2016) This has undoubtedly lead to an increase in skill by Dr. Fishkin and those who work with him, and therefore, improved the overall quality of the process. In the afterward of his 1997 book The Voice of the People, Fishkin gives a rundown of the NIC and the unique challenges it presented including “a number of challenges for which there were few precedents.”[3] Perhaps the largest question mark on the event was on the process itself. That the participants would shift their own viewpoints after the event was far from a given. The well documented phenomenon of diverse participants deliberating and achieving a more moderate viewpoint as a collective had not been studied in the way that deliberative polls allow for. This shifting of mindsets that Dr. Fishkin had set as a goal was, in his viewpoint, achieved. [2] On top of the questioned process, a challenge of practicality was ever present. What turned out to be a $3.5 million experiment and public trial run for deliberative polling could have turned into a long-term, large-scale project to add to the national political discourse. However, the extreme cost and low ratings compared to debates and other partisan events [4] caused the deliberative poll to move down in scale. Simply looking at Participedia’s large collection of deliberative poll examples shows that James Fishkin’s brainchild is alive and well, but its mainstream, broad-based appeal is all but nonexistent in the 21st century. This “granddaddy of all deliberative polls” brought presidential hopefuls into contact with the public in a unique, representative way that left the participants feeling quite different towards politics when they left. In this case, “the air of hopeful community was just as important as the statistical data.” [1]


Secondary Sources

[1]Claitor, Diana. (1996). 'We listen and are willing to help each other'. Current 29 Jan. 1996

[2]Fishkin, James. Interview. "Jim Fishkin on the 1996 Deliberative Poll." YouTube. Video

[3]Fishkin, James S. (1997) The Voice of the People: Public Opinion and Democracy, Yale University Press.

[4]Gastil, John. (2000). By Popular Demand: Revitalizing Representative Democracy Through Deliberative Elections, University of California Press. Pg.132-135

[5]Gastil, John. (1996) Deliberation at the National Issues Convention: An Observer's Notes, Kettering Foundation.

[6]Gray, Sean. (2009) Deliberative Polling. Participedia

External Links








Case Data


University of Texas at Austin 78712 Austin , TX
United States
Texas US
Geographical Scope: 


What was the intended purpose?: 
Other: Intended Purpose(s): 
Experiment in Deliberative Democracy


Start Date: 
Friday, January 19, 1996
End Date: 
Sunday, January 21, 1996
Number of Meeting Days: 


Total Number of Participants: 
Targeted Participants (Demographics): 
Targeted Participants (Public Roles): 
Method of Recruitment: 


If yes, were they ...: 
Facetoface, Online or Both: 
Decision Method(s)?: 
If voting...: 
[no data entered]


Who paid for the project or initiative?: 
PBS Democracy Project, James Fishkin, Various Donors, Incomplete list
Who was primarily responsible for organizing the initiative?: 
[no data entered]
Type of Organizing Entity: 
Other: Organizing Entity: 
James Fishkin
Who else supported the initiative? : 
[no data entered]


Total Budget: 
US$4 000 000.00
Average Annual Budget: 
[no data entered]
Number of Full-Time Staff: 
[no data entered]
Number of Part-Time Staff: 
[no data entered]
Staff Type: 
[no data entered]
Number of Volunteers: 
[no data entered]


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