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For Whom the Bell Polls

Shimmy Blum

Election season means polling season, but this week Mishpacha has turned the tables. Instead of answering a long list of questions, we asked one of the nation’s premier polling companies a few questions of our own — such as how do they obtain accurate results, and why do their pollsters always seem to call at dinnertime.

Tuesday, February 07, 2012

office boothsWhen I reach my destination, Quinnipiac University Polling Institute, located in Hamden, Connecticut, a diverse group of workers is already at their computers, with their headsets on. It is precisely when the average person is back home and relaxing that these pollsters get down to business. Surveys are generally conducted weeknights from 6–9 p.m., Saturdays from 10 a.m.–2 p.m., and Sundays from 5–9 p.m., the times when people are most likely to be home and able to speak. 

In a second-floor office sits poll director Douglas Schwartz, PhD, who is reviewing some last-minute statistics on his computer screen. In contrast to the frenetic pace that poll results and political news get reported these days, Dr. Schwartz, who is warm and soft-spoken, seems to have all the time in the world.

A Jewish lifelong resident of Connecticut, Dr. Schwartz has directed the Quinnipiac poll since 1994. He previously served in the CBS News election and survey unit, and amassed considerable expertise in the field. “A mere spoonful out of a large pot of soup will tell you how the entire pot tastes,” he explains. “Polls are similar; you get the right sample and you get an accurate reading of the entire electorate.”

In this area, Quinnipiac has proven itself in recent years. According to leading independent polling guru Nate Silver of the New York Times, Quinnipiac’s poll results in the final weeks of the 2010 senatorial and gubernatorial races more closely mirrored the actual vote tallies than any other major pollster. In Florida, Quinnipiac’s final poll for the 2012 primary race was the only one that predicted Mitt Romney’s 14-point victory margin to the tee, while other polls in the final days pegged his lead anywhere between 5 and 20 points.

There is lots of sophisticated data analysis that goes into tweaking a solid final poll, but Dr. Schwartz says that his best secret for success is getting the original sample to be as accurate as possible. “If you have to weight a demographic down from 70 percent of survey respondents to 50 percent of the final sample, it’s no good,” he contends. “I focus on techniques to get a good random sample of the population in the first place. You want everyone in the population to have an equal chance of being polled.”

How is that accomplished?

We take a walk down to the ground floor, where the polling is in full swing, and instantly go from an aura of buttoned-up academia to everyday America. The 150 polling stations are occupied by members of just about every demographic group in the United States, mostly dressed in polo shorts, T-shirts and jeans.

Young Quinnipiac college students doing their Work-Study hours sit side by side with middle-aged workers and retirees. Whites, Hispanics, African Americans, and citizens from Indian and Pakistani descent fill the room. In response to Mishpacha’s yarmulke-clad duo snooping on their activities, one middle-aged woman introduces herself as a Yeshiva of Flatbush alumna. 

We watch polls simultaneously being conducted for New York and Ohio, the latter being a key battleground that will hold its primary on March 6th, “Super Tuesday”; each side of the room is designated to one of the states.

The computers dial phone numbers that they randomly spin out, based upon the proportional percentage of the population in each of the state’s area codes and prefixes. When the person at the other end of the line picks up the phone, Quinnipiac has a unique “golden rule”: They insist on only interviewing the person in the household that is over 18 years old and has the closest upcoming birthday — regardless of whether that person is home at the time (they will call back) — or is even registered to vote.

Since women tend to pick up the home phone far more frequently than men do and parents are typically home more frequently than their adult children are, the randomness of the birthday rule ensures that no one demographic is polled disproportionally. Therefore, the original sample reflects the overall population.

Once the “birthday” adult is reached, interviewers read through the long list of questions on their computer screens and enter the multiple-choice responses. We hear the questions in the air: “If the Republican primary were held today and the candidates were Newt Gingrich, Mitt Romney, Rick Santorum and Ron Paul, for whom would you vote? (1) Gingrich, (2) Romney, (3) Santorum, (4) Paul, (5) Someone else, (6) Don’t know”; “If you had to choose, which type of experience do you think would better help a candidate serve effectively as president: someone who has experience in Washington or a Washington outsider? (1) DC experience, (2) DC outsider, (3) Don’t know”; voters were also asked a slew of questions regarding their approval of their governors and various pending state initiatives. 

Quinnipiac prefers live person-to-person interviews, rather than automated calling or robocall systems, since voters have a harder time lying to a direct questioner. The calling system also ensures that a broader representation of the population, and not just die-hard political enthusiasts, answers the pollsters’ questions. “The most important factors in whether a person will take the 10–15 minutes to respond to a survey are the voice, enthusiasm, and phone skills of the interviewer,” says Dottie Donarum, manager of interviewer operations, as she makes her rounds on the floor.


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