Sam Popkin talks politics, and everyone’s listening


Sam Popkin, Ph.D., is a UCSD professor of political science and this year’s recipient of the UCSD Alumni Association’s Distinguished Teaching Award. Popkin is a nationally known political analyst, public opinion expert, and a prolific author known for his work on peasant societies in Southeast Asia.

An adviser to five presidential campaigns, his experiences have ranged from polling and strategy for the Clinton campaign, to playing Ronald Reagan during debate rehearsals for President Carter. From 1983 to 1990, he consulted with CBS News election units on surveys and analysis, and has been a consultant to political parties in Canada and Europe.

Popkin has inspired legions of students at UCSD. “My students have applied what they learned from me in their professional work in government,” he said, “and also in navigating the political process. I’m really proud of that.” Popkin will be honored at the UCSD Alumni Awards for Excellence Celebration on June 5.

What brought you to La Jolla?

Who could resist a chance to take part in building a new department at a world-class university located in an ideal climate for thriving academics and vibrant student life?

When UCSD was starting to win hundreds of millions in research grants, Sen. James Pearson, Kansas, was concerned to see an upstart campus pull in so much more research money than the University of Kansas. When he asked what Kansas could do to close the gap, the researchers told him, if I may paraphrase, “Get a beach!”

What makes this town special to you?

La Jolla has become a melting pot for the new world of Asia and Latin America. Our children grew up in a global environment, comfortable with the customs, languages and heritages of the entire Pacific Rim. When we arrived in 1975, La Jolla was more like an inland Midwestern town than a part of California. Now we are known worldwide for our creativity, innovation and way of life.

If you could snap your fingers and have it done, what might you add, subtract or improve in the area?

More street life, Italian restaurants as good as George’s or Whisknladle, shorter lines at Kono’s, more dance and jazz performances, and a Super Bowl victory for the Chargers.

Who or what inspires you?

I’m inspired by ideas that change the way we understand the world, whether they are from science or art.

If you hosted a dinner party for eight, whom (living or deceased) would you invite?

Roger and Ellen Revelle, Shakespeare, Mark Twain, Johnny (R. W.) and Betsey Apple, Ithiel de Sola Pool and Jean Mackenzie Pool — two I’ve never met and six who ask eye-opening questions and tell great stories.

Tell us about what you are currently reading.

I’m reading mysteries set in South Africa. I think the best way to prepare for a trip and to get a feel for the minutiae of everyday life is through fiction, especially detective stories.

What is your most-prized possession?

It’s my family.

What do you do for fun?

I enjoy photography, baking bread or making pizza, and talking to friends.

Please describe your greatest accomplishment.

I’m proud of maintaining a worldwide network of friends, colleagues and former students from UCSD and bringing them into contact with each other.

What is your motto or philosophy of life?

  1. Every year: make a new friend, visit a new country, and discover a new art form.
  2. Never invite couples to dinner if you care which one you talk to most.
  3. Recruit and encourage the people whose ideas will bury yours.