Robert M. Groves: Obama's Pick for Census Chief

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Paul Jaronski / University of Michigan / AP

University of Michigan professor Robert M. Groves was selected by President Barack Obama to be the next Census director

As a lifelong academic and writer of such decidedly nonscintillating titles as Survey Nonresponse, Robert M. Groves would seem an unlikely political warrior. Yet President Obama's nomination of Groves to head the Census Bureau and oversee next year's national head count has sent Republicans scrambling to the ramparts. "With the nomination of Robert Groves, President Obama has made clear that he intends to employ the political manipulation of census data for partisan gain," North Carolina Congressman Patrick McHenry cautioned. Other lawmakers called Groves an "incredibly troubling selection" who must be watched for "statistical sleight of hand."

A soft-spoken University of Michigan sociology professor and survey expert, Groves, 60, has stepped straight into the firing line in the decennial battle over the national Census — the tally used to distribute congressional seats and tax dollars. The most contentious issue: whether to rely on mathematical sampling in addition to old-fashioned, one-at-a-time counting to measure the country's population. Many experts say sampling yields more accurate results than an individual count, especially among those hardest to reach, such as the homeless and the poor. As a rule, though, Republicans grow queasy at seeing the words Census and sampling in the same sentence, as those hard-to-count populations generally support Democrats. A government study found that the 2000 Census missed more than 4 million people, largely in minority, poor and immigrant communities. (See who's who in Obama's White House.)

As an associate Census director in the 1990s, Groves angered Republicans by supporting a statistical adjustment to compensate for the 1990 undercount — a move that was eventually squashed by the then Republican Commerce Secretary overseeing the Census Bureau. The Supreme Court later ruled that statistical sampling cannot be used to apportion congressional seats but can be used for other purposes, such as legislative redistricting and, of course, doling out dollars. (Read "Why the 2010 Census Stirs Up Partisan Politics.")

Groves must be confirmed by the Senate — a likely prospect, given the Democratic majority on Capitol Hill. As far as next year's Census is concerned, it appears that Republican fears over Groves are unfounded. Insiders say it's too late now to introduce statistical sampling into the count, and new Commerce Secretary Gary Locke essentially ruled it out during his own confirmation hearing. But Groves and his statistical models could still play a major role shaping the Census of the future.

Fast Facts:

• Originally from Kansas City. Earned a bachelor's degree summa cum laude from Dartmouth College, followed by master's degrees in statistics and sociology and a Ph.D. in sociology from the University of Michigan.

• Joined the University of Michigan's Sociology Department in 1975. Has also taught at the University of Maryland and at schools in Sweden and Germany.

• Served as an associate census director from 1990 to 1992.

• Helped develop surveys for groups ranging from the American Lung Association to A.C. Nielsen and Co.

• Has written several books and dozens of scholarly articles and book chapters on survey methods. Much of his work focuses on boosting response rates to polls and surveys.

• Worked as a Vermont prison guard during college.

Quotes About Robert M. Groves:

• "He's generally well liked and well respected in the profession" and "very good at dealing with human interaction."
— Eugene Ericksen, a Temple University sociology and statistics professor and former classmate. (Detroit Free Press, April 2, 2009)

• "He is a respected social scientist who will run the Census Bureau with integrity and independence."
— Commerce Secretary Gary Locke. (AP, April 2, 2009)

• "This is an incredibly troubling selection that contradicts the Administration's assurances that the census process would not be used to advance an ulterior political agenda."
— Representative Darrell Issa (New York Times, April 2, 2009)

• "For those tempted to label Groves as the pawn of partisans in the White House or the Democratic Party, I have a warning: the notion of Bob Groves yielding to partisanship is laughable. As in rolling-on-the-floor, laughing-out-loud laughable."
— Mark Blumenthal, publisher and editor, (April 5, 2009)

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