Polling Institute gives Quinnipiac a national face

By Rachael Scarborough King, Register Staff
Jan. 21, 2008

HAMDEN — Quinnipiac University political science professor Scott McLean winced when he watched MSNBC-TV host Chris Matthews criticize polling firms — citing Quinnipiac’s by name — for getting it wrong in New Hampshire.

Plenty of pollsters lost credibility for predicting Barack Obama would comfortably beat Hillary Clinton, but McLean knew the Quinnipiac University Polling Institute wasn’t one of them.

“Quinnipiac wasn’t even polling in New Hampshire, and yet Chris Matthews associated that term, the word Quinnipiac, with polling,” McLean said. “It’s good that when people think about polls and elections, they think about Quinnipiac, but the difficulty is that when polls are wrong and Quinnipiac was smart enough to stay out of it, they can still get connected with, ‘Oh, it’s another poll and they’re not to be trusted.’”

The Polling Institute continues to be one of the country’s best-known poll sources. As Connecticut voters wait to cast their primary ballots on Feb. 5, the firm is keeping up with the flurry of numbers on the Democratic and Republican presidential contenders.

The Quinnipiac University Polling Institute has been surveying Connecticut residents for 20 years, and since 1994 has steadily expanded the number of states it covers. Now, the institute’s poll numbers are routinely cited by national news sources reporting on state and presidential elections.

Douglas Schwartz, the director of the poll, said that during primary season and the months leading up to a presidential election, the institute is “under the microscope.”

“Our bread and butter really is elections,” Schwartz said. “That’s what we’re most known for … not just how the races turn out, but also what’s driving voters.”

Many pollsters professed a “mea culpa” after saying Obama had a double-digit lead over Clinton, who won the primary by about 3 percentage points.

But with wide-open races in both the Republican and Democratic fields, the pundits and voters continue to rely on a multitude of poll numbers in the run-up to the 24 state primaries on Feb. 5’s “Tsunami Tuesday.”

Quinnipiac doesn’t poll in New Hampshire, in part because it is “just a really tough place to poll,” Schwartz said. Instead, it focuses on six states — Connecticut, New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Ohio and Florida — and on national and New York City-specific questions.

Schwartz said he has several theories about the difference in the New Hampshire polls released on Jan. 6 or 7 and the election results on Jan. 8. One possibility is that the pollsters stopped too early, missing a late surge for Clinton.

The best example of what pollsters try to avoid is the 1948 presidential election, when many people predicted a victory for Republican Thomas Dewey over President Harry Truman. At that time, Schwartz said, the polls ended too early — but in 1948, it was weeks too early. These days, a 24-hour gap may have made the difference between the New Hampshire poll numbers and the election results.

To improve results, the institute uses a computer program to randomly generate the phone numbers it calls rather than relying on phone listings which exclude many people. The analysts also use different methods to decide who to include as “likely voters.”

“We want to get our elections right, otherwise we’re going to lose credibility with the public,” Schwartz said.

In November, the Polling Institute moved into a new building on West Woods Road in Hamden, nearly doubling the number of polling stations for interviewers to use. The larger space means the institute can do more and longer surveys and include a larger sample size, which should make the polls more accurate.

In addition to election surveys, the institute holds general polls in each state it covers about every other month, asking questions about the favorability of public officials and voters’ feelings about important issues.

“The demand is so high, from the media, from the public — they want to know what’s going on in the primaries and we’re trying to do (different surveys) simultaneously,” Schwartz said. Right now, he added, the institute is focused on polling in Florida, New York and New Jersey.

Quinnipiac employs nine full-time staff members and about 200 part-time interviewers in the Polling Institute. Many of the interviewers are students studying marketing or political science, Schwartz said.

The institute averages about one poll a week, he added. Recently, he said, interviewers have been asking questions about general election match-ups — pitting the leading Democratic and Republican candidates against each other — and who voters plan to support in the primaries, among other topics.

McLean, the political science professor, took 14 students to New Hampshire last semester as part of an honors seminar. The class spent the week leading up to primary day in Manchester, N.H.

He said he thinks reporters and the public should try to view polls as “a snapshot in time,” rather than predictors of the outcome of an election.

“I think it’s a tribute to the trustworthiness of the Quinnipiac poll that it wasn’t willing to go into New Hampshire, which is a very difficult place to be accurate and a very difficult place to get the most accurate reading of the electorate here,” he said.

Mark Bouchard, a Quinnipiac junior, worked for Clinton’s campaign while in New Hampshire with McLean. He said that, despite the media’s focus on poll numbers, the voters he spoke with did not seem to put much emphasis on them.

“They didn’t really even mention the polls — they were just talking about how they were just going to keep looking into the candidates and their issues and stuff, and then they were going to make the decisions,” Bouchard said. “I was out just talking to the voters, and I had a very good feeling about election day.”

Nicole Colomonico, a senior from Hamden, said many people recognized the Quinnipiac name because of the polls.

“That was pretty much the number one way that people recognized Quinnipiac,” Colomonico said. “Mostly, we were known for the Polling Institute.”

Bouchard added that Clinton, who attended Yale Law School, had some nice words for the students when they had the chance to talk to her at a campaign event.

“When we met Hillary, we said, ‘We’re from Quinnipiac,’ and she said, ‘Oh, that’s a good school,’” Bouchard said. “So she knows about us — we’re on the map in the political headquarters.”

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