Quinnipiac takes voters’ pulse

Pollster Peter Brown was standing in a cab line at a Denver airport on his way to the 2008 Democratic National Convention when his phone buzzed to life — a reporter was calling for an interview about a recent poll release. A diminutive, elderly woman eyed him curiously as he answered questions about the presidential election, asking him where he worked after he hung up. Though he said he did not expect her to have heard of the Quinnipiac Polling Institute, he remembered her eyes widening in recognition.

“Even she, a little old lady from Arizona on her way to visit family, knew Quinnipiac,” said Brown, the Hamden-based polling institute’s assistant director. “The name is just part of the lexicon.”

The Quinnipiac Polling Institute — based out of nearby Quinnipiac University — has come a long way since its inception in 1988 as a Connecticut-only voter survey. Today, a team of veteran journalists and academics oversee a staff of more than 300 who produce nationwide polls that are regularly featured in major media outlets such as The New York Times, USA Today and national cable news networks.

The Quinnipiac poll — for which interviewers contact a random selection of registered voters to ask about political issues and candidates — has been respected for its accuracy during the last decade, Quinnipiac political science professor Sean Duffy said. During the 2012 election season, Quinnipiac polls produced near-exact predictions of voter behavior in Florida, Virginia and Ohio for the presidential election and surveyed voter opinions of Connecticut’s tight Senate race between Democrat Chris Murphy and Republican Linda McMahon on a monthly basis.

Quinnipiac polls have made their mark on campaign rhetoric this year with nine national and eight Connecticut surveys. While Ben Marter, a campaign staffer for Connecticut’s new Senator-elect Murphy, said that the “only poll that matters” was the one taken on Election Day, Duffy said campaigns understand the power of polls to influence the “mass psychology of the electorate.” Favorable polling numbers, Brown said, can also provide candidates with opportunities to fundraise, as donors may be more willing to give to campaigns when polls show their candidate ahead.

But with a proliferation of polls like Quinnipiac in recent years, political campaigns must be quick to respond whenever a new survey is released.

“Campaigns want to have a response [to poll numbers] ready to go,” said Quinnipiac polls director Doug Schwartz, who conducted surveys regarding hot-button issues in the Connecticut Senate race such as McMahon’s affiliation with the wrestling world and Murphy’s personal financial history. “They want to frame the story in their best interest.”

Duffy said that the 24/7 news cycle feeds a tendency for even the most accurate poll numbers to be overhyped and that it is impractical to emphasize the results of any particular poll.

“We report a new poll number every day, every hour, but things don’t shift that much overnight,” Duffy said. “We are poll-crazy in this country.”

Rather than relying on the results of a single poll, journalists try to account for “house effects” — systematic biases, typically for one party, in the results of any given polling firm. Buzzfeed political reporter and former News editor Zeke Miller ’11 said that while Quinnipiac polls have a respectable track record, all polls are a mere “guessing game.” Emily Swanson, polling director for the Huffington Post, said her team gives as much context as possible when reporting a story about one individual poll such as Quinnipiac’s, supplementing with interactive graphs that average all available polls.

The Quinnipiac poll is unusual among many of its peer organizations in that it remains unaffiliated with political parties and interest groups. Impartiality is a central tenet of the institute, which Duffy said “takes a lot of effort to maintain its independent reputation.”

“People trust us,” Schwartz said. “People will always look at polls that are sponsored with a big grain of salt if they are trying to get an accurate read on public opinion.”

As a result of Quinnipiac’s accuracy, New York Times polling analyst Nate Silver dubbed the Quinnipiac Polling Institute the home of the most accurate major poll in 2010. But David Mark, editor-in-chief of the political news site Politix, said that it has also suffered “occasional hits” from conservative pundits such as radio host Hugh Hewitt who tweeted in September that the poll is “junk” because it oversamples Democratic voters.

Schwartz, however, said the institute employs unbiased methods to survey the electorate. Usually, interviewers — who are mostly Quinnipiac students selected through a competitive screening and training process — contact 1,000 randomly-selected registered voters during a period of five or six days. The interviews take place at the institute’s phone bank, which has 125 computer-assisted stations, said Dorothy Donarum, manager of interviewer operations. Pollsters scientifically analyze the results before releasing the data to the public, performing a role that Schwartz said is “critical” to democracy.

“It is important that our elected officials know what issues people care about,” Schwartz said. “We are keeping the campaigns honest.”

In addition to its national and state polls, the institute conducts surveys in swing states such as Florida, New Jersey, New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Virginia.

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