- Associated Press - Monday, August 1, 2016

HAMDEN, Conn. (AP) - For a political news junkie, Doug Schwartz has the dream job - keeping track of the pulse of the country on everything from gay marriage to the next president of the United States.

For more than 20 years, Schwartz has headed the Quinnipiac University Polling Institute, a university-funded organization that polls the state and the nation on whatever the hot topic of the day is, and is especially known for its surveys on elections. So this is a big year for the institute, he said, as the country heads into what is considered one of the most contentious presidential elections in recent history.

“I love finding out what’s going on in the presidential race,” said Schwartz, who has a doctorate in political science and worked for the CBS News election unit before coming to Quinnipiac.

The polling institute has become a household name over the past few decades. The website FiveThirtyEight.com, which analyzes the quality of polls, rates Quinnipiac Polling Institute an A-, higher than the Gallup poll, which it gives a B+. National media outlets routinely use its data in stories, helping to enhance the reputation of the university far beyond Hamden or even Connecticut.

And that’s what Quinnipiac President John Lahey had in mind when he decided to enhance what started out as a minor operation undertaken by one professor into a major section of the university, now with its own building off Whitney Avenue and a staff of more than 150 who spend each night making calls on different issues.

The institute began in 1988 when marketing research professor Paul Consigna conducted a few polls, Schwartz said, that caught Lahey’s attention.

“He wanted to expand the poll into New York and New Jersey as a public service that could attract students from neighboring states,” he said. It worked - the QU student population now includes many students from those states.

“President Lahey had the vision to take this from a small college to a nationally recognized university,” Schwartz said, “adding the polling institute as well as the schools of engineering, law and medicine.”

Schwartz said he came on board in 1994, after working in the CBS News election unit, where he said he “caught the political bug.”

The institute operates all year, taking a break between Christmas and New Year’s when the university is closed, he said. It is the only poll that regularly polls in New York City, he said, and also regularly conducts polls in 11 states - New York, New Jersey, Connecticut, Florida, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Colorado, Virginia, Minnesota, Wisconsin and Iowa. “We are always polling somewhere,” he said.

The polling institute is fully financed by the university and never does work on commission from political candidates or outside organizations.

“I think it is really important to us to be completely independent. We have no ax to grind,” Schwartz said, adding, “The most important thing is to get it right.”

Each night, a mixture of Quinnipiac students and others man 150 stations equipped with computers and headphones from which the pollers make the calls. It’s known as computer-assisted telephone interviewing, Schwartz said, with the pollers reading the questionnaires on the screen and inputting the answers into the computer. The information is then fed into one central data center.

It typically takes five to seven nights to complete a poll, Schwartz said. “Sometimes, we do longer polls, but we try to do them over five to seven days. The key for us is we conduct what’s known as a random sample, where everyone has an equal chance of being selected.”

The sample polled should be representative of the larger population through the use of census data, Schwartz said.

The phone numbers are generated through random digit dialing, which Schwartz said is considered “the gold standard.

“All phones including cellphones are included,” he said. “That is really important because about half of the country has only cellphones and no land lines, and those with cellphones tend to be younger.”

What they poll on is based on what is going on in the news at the time, Schwartz said, and right now it’s all about the presidential election.

“We are focusing on key swing states,” he said, referring to states that don’t historically vote one way. Connecticut is considered a Democratic state, as is much of New England. Since 1992, Democratic presidential candidates have won Connecticut’s electoral votes, now numbering seven.

There are six swing states the institute is focusing on now, Schwartz said: Florida, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Virginia, Colorado and Iowa. Right now, they’re polling in Florida, Ohio and Pennsylvania, he said. “If Donald Trump wins those three states plus the states (former Republican presidential nominee Mitt) Romney won in 2012, then he will be elected,” Schwartz predicted. He said Trump is tied with Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton in Ohio, a state considered a must win for a Republican candidate.

But if what she has heard is any indication, it will likely be Clinton inaugurated in January, said Cheshire resident Mia Caraballo, who has worked at the polling institute for the past four years. She gets “an earful” from some respondents who are eager to vent their frustrations with this year’s presidential election, she said.

“They are all over the map, but most are not particularly thrilled by any of the candidates,” she said. “They say they are voting for the lesser of two evils, which is unfortunate.”

And that “lesser of two evils” is most often Clinton, from her experience, Caraballo said. “I hear a lot of negative things about Trump,” she said. “Some will say he has a big mouth and is a blowhard and that he talks a lot but doesn’t offer any real solutions to problems. They also say he is a racist.”

She hears fewer complaints about Clinton, she said, although she does get comments about the former secretary of state’s email server problems and how she handled the Benghazi attacks. “They’re still remembering that,” she said. “The people who are not voting for her feel strongly that she is a liar.”

She enjoys the job, said Caraballo, who is a QU alumna. “I had a friend who was working here, and she called me when there was a position open and I jumped at it,” she said. “It’s something I wanted to be a part of. I like that it is something different every night. I enjoy speaking with people from all over the country and hearing their responses and getting an idea about what is going on in that part of the country. It has been really interesting.”

It’s bound to get even more interesting this coming week. Traditionally, each candidate experiences a “bounce,” or increase of support among voters, at the conclusion of each convention. Last week, Trump pulled ahead of Clinton in many polls, and it’s expected Clinton will narrow that gap in the coming days with a bounce of her own since the end of the Democratic convention Thursday.

“(This) week, we will really start paying attention to how the voters are settling in,” Schwartz said, and it will continue to build as debates between the candidates scheduled for the fall near. “The debates will have a big impact on the race,” he predicts.

Every night, pollers work from 6 to 9 p.m., or until midnight if it’s a poll that includes respondents from the West Coast, and they also work on the weekends, Schwartz said. “We don’t do quickie polls in one or two nights,” he said. Each number is randomly generated and called at least four times, both week nights and during the weekend. If there is no answer, the number is discarded, he said.

A poll consists of 1,000 responses and the number of calls it takes to get that many responses can vary by state, he said, but the average response rate is 50 percent of those called.

The poller doesn’t automatically poll the person who answers the telephone, Schwartz said, instead asking for the person in the household who will next have a birthday. That’s done to ensure a variety of respondents, he said. “Women are more likely to answer the phone, and they need to get a balance of men and women,” he said. They then ask if the person is registered to vote - another criterion for eligibility to take part in the poll - and if the poll is regarding a closed primary, they will ask with what party they are registered.

According to the census, the population is made up of 52 percent women and 48 percent men, so the demographic information of the response to a poll must mirror those numbers in its makeup, Schwartz said.

“Typically, the raw data we get is pretty much in line with the census figures,” he said. “Women are 52 percent of the population and men are 48 percent, and we get pretty close to that. Every survey we do, if we get too many or too few of one category, we can adjust it. If we get 54 percent of women rather than 52 percent, we can weigh it down to 52 percent. We want the survey to match the census and it’s usually a minor adjustment. If it’s far off the census, then it’s a bad survey.”

The calls are made at night and on the weekends because they want to get people at the time when they’re most likely to be home, Schwartz said.

“We have found through experience that calling at that hour, that they are generally around,” he said. During the day, it’s harder to reach people, he said, but they may start making calls during the day to see if there will be enough of a response.

In addition to elections, they have conducted polls on gay marriage, abortion and the death penalty. “People have strong opinions,” he said. They also are known for one of their most popular polls done each spring - on which team is more popular in Connecticut, the Yankees or the Red Sox.

“Occasionally, we will do other issues, such as the economy, taxes and foreign policy,” he said. “We do what is in the news.”

While they do national polls, their niche is state polling, he said. “There are a lot of national polls,” he said. “The state is our niche.”

And those polls too have brought out strong opinions from the respondents, he said.

“People are not happy, and they haven’t been happy since (Gov. Dannel P.) Malloy’s first tax increase,” he said. “The budget problems don’t seem to be going anywhere in Connecticut and people are very unhappy.”

While the attention this year is on the presidential election, there are also contentious Senate races in Pennsylvania, Florida and Ohio, he said. Every year is an election year, though the voters might not be as focused as they are in presidential years, he said. For instance, next year, New York City elects a mayor and New York and Virginia elect governors. Then, the midterm elections are held in 2018, as well as the Connecticut governor’s race.

Many of the institutes’ pollers are university students, especially during the academic year, Schwartz said. It’s an especially popular position with political science students, he said.

Quinnipiac University student Alana Perrotta, 21, has been working at the polling institute for two years, since she was a sophomore, and will until she graduates in May. As a broadcast journalism major, she was naturally interested in working there, she said, and was happy to land an internship there.

“It was something I wanted to do coming to Quinnipiac,” the New Jersey resident said. “I enjoy politics, and everything I’m in involves it - student government, the polling institute.”

Each night over the three-hour period, she will make about 200 calls, Perrotta said, but will only get a fraction of that number in responses. The rest of the calls will either go unanswered or the people will decline to participate, she said. But because there are so many people making the calls each night, the number of valid responses adds up, she said.

And those who do agree to answer the questions are usually enthusiastic to participate, she said. “The people who will take the poll are eager to take it,” she said, “and they will give good answers and will answer pretty thoroughly.”

“Sometimes, you can get people who are rude, but I think it comes from not understanding what we are doing,” she said. Many will automatically assume she is trying to sell them something and say they’re not interested, she said. “Some don’t give me a chance to explain,” she said.

___

Information from: New Haven Register, https://www.nhregister.com

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