Nancy Reagan Redux, or More Public Opinion Research on Astrology


Recently as I was poring over old public opinion research on American’s views on astrology, I surfaced a survey that blew my mind.  A 1998 Gallup Poll took advantage of the media interest in astrology after it was revealed that Nancy Reagan had a personal astrologer.  The survey asked a number of questions about how Nancy Reagan’s purported interest in astrology had shifted people’s views on astrology, government, and the Reagan presidency.

You may remember that Nancy Reagan’s interest in astrology was largely verified in 1990 by astrologer Joan Quigley, in her tell-all book What Does Joan Say? and then covered by Time Magazine.  Nancy Reagan was “outed” by Ronald Reagan’s chief of staff, Donald Regan, who started working for the President in 1985, but notoriously feuded with her.  When he resigned in 1987, Regan wrote a tell-all book about his experience that mentioned Quigley’s role in the White House and Nancy Reagan’s reliance on her. This 1988 People Magazine article discusses the media frenzy that resulted.  And, here is Joan Quigley speaking for herself so you can see her perspective:

Of course, it’s impossible to know whether to take Quigley at her word in terms of her influence on Nancy Reagan and the President, but you have to assume that some of her advice was followed.

So, in this context, in 1998 the Gallup poll asked three questions about this topic:

  1. Recently, Nancy Reagan’s interest in astrology has been in the news.  What are your own views on astrology?  Do you personally believe in it, or not?
  2. Has your opinion (of Ronald Reagan) become more favorable or less favorable as a result (of reports about astrology in the White House)?
  3. Have the reports about astrology in the White House had much of an effect on your overall opinion of Ronald Reagan, or not?

Interestingly, when asked in conjunction with this prompt about Nancy, only 12% of respondents said that they believe in astrology.  Perhaps a concrete example makes the larger group of Americans who purport to believe (25-30%) in astrology to rethink their response.

Only 1% of respondents said that Nancy Reagan’s interest in astrology improved their favorable view of the President, while 17% said it made them view him less favorably.  Finally, 19% said that it had made them think differently about Ronald Reagan and his presidency.

A CBS News/New York Times Poll (May 1988) asked in a similar vein:  Do you think President Reagan should use horoscopes or astrology to help him make government policy decisions?  81% of those polled said that the President should not, and only a small percentage of folks (6%) said yes, or it depends (6%).  I would like to meet those 6% of folks who said “yes.”

It seems like most Americans consult astrology or are familiar with it, and “believe” in it in the most general ways.  But when asked to apply it to their own lives or to something like government decisions, people’s tendency to believe in it gets diluted.  This confirms my suspicion that the 25% of Americans who believe in astrology, don’t entirely know what they are believing in or that belief is somewhat lukewarm.  That doesn’t mean that they aren’t susceptible to greater understanding, but it may be the case that people aren’t thinking very hard beyond sun sign astrology and magazine horoscopes to something more sophisticated.


25% of Americans Believe in Astrology

Public Opinion AstrologyIt is rare that I run into someone who doesn’t read his or her horoscope, or at least give a passing glance to it.  It may be the company that I am keeping these days, but the statistics say otherwise.  It’s actually a fact that millions of Americans regularly consult astrology for insights about their lives.  One compelling thing that happened during the big story of 2011 about Ophiuchus going viral is that it reminded me that millions of Americans actually “believe” in astrology and read their horoscopes.  Astrology does have a lot of currency with a hell of a lot of folks.

There is a recent article that I recommend which summarizes American’s views on astrology and other cosmic topics, Eric Weiner’s December 2011 story in the Los Angeles Times.  As the piece points out, the major public polling organizations like the Pew Research Center and Gallup have been asking about people’s beliefs in astrology for decades, so we actually know a bit about people’s opinions in this area.  They have been asking:

Do you believe in astrology, or that the positions of the stars and planets can affect people’s lives?

In 2012, Pew sampled more than 3,000 people by phone, and 30% of Americans agreed with this statement.  In 2009, 25% agreed.  That represents millions of Americans, and these numbers have been verified by polling from other outlets. 

The Gallup Poll, for example, has been asking a similar question since 1975 with the following results:  25% (2005); 28% (2001); 25% (1996); 23% (1994); 25% (1990); 31% (1978); and 25% (1975).  When Fox News asked this same question in 2005, 37% of people said they believe in astrology; a 2003 study by Fox News put this number at 29%.  There are a few outliers like a 1998 ABC/Washington Post Poll where 16% believe in astrology, but for the most part the numbers hover in the 25-30% spectrum.  For more than 35 years, more than 25% of Americans have said that they believe in astrology.

The 2009 Pew study is interesting for a number of reasons, that I will summarize here.  You might wonder—who are these 25% of people who believe in astrology?  What is their profile?  To begin, the Pew study tells us that they skew younger; in fact, the younger a person is, they more likely they are to believe; 18-24 year-olds believe (32%) and 65+ believe to a much lesser degree (18%).  They also tend to be less formally educated; in fact, the more formal education people have the less they tend to be believers.  Likewise, they tend to be more liberal (30%) than conservative (18%) and to be poorer (32% of those making under $30,000 a year) than wealthier (16% of those making over $75,000 per year).  Democrats outnumbered Republicans 2 to 1.  There were more believers on the West Coast (29%) versus the South (22%), but there was not huge variation in the four major regions of the country.

There were a couple of surprises for me, though.  My own suspicion was that the percentage of women who suscribe to astrology would be much higher than men, but it is only modestly so; 28% of women versus 21% of men.   A more startling fact was that while 22% of believers were self-identified as Caucasian/White, 29% of African-Americans and 35% of Hispanics claimed to be so.

I am fortunate that I work with a number of very talented public opinion researchers, which has given me some modest insight about how all this works.  They also have given me so cues on how to identify some of the best research over the last twenty or so years on this topic, which is admittedly scarce.  Generally you analyze public opinion not only to get a snapshot about the beliefs of a particular group, but also to change or modify it.  From my vantage point, if I were a member of the astrological establishment, I would be using this sizeable audience to identify key opinion leaders and influencers who could help expand the universe of folks that give additional credibility to this art.

Although 25% of Americans believe in astrology, more than 50% regularly read their horoscope or a personal astrology report (2010 General Social Survey) either occasionally or regularly.  So more than half of Americans are aware of astrology, even if less pay active attention to it.  And only 5% actually said that “horoscopes or astrology helped you make decisions about your life” (1988 CBS News/New York Times Poll), so far fewer are either able to make sense of their horoscopes or know how to practically activate themselves around it.

All of this opinion research though still begs the question about what people actually believe in.  Truthfully, I am not sure what these folks think astrology actually is, and I can’t tell you how many folks ask if being psychic and intuitive is the same thing.  These are good questions.  So there is a lot of room to actually influence and shift people’s thinking on this topic.