The Quinnipiac University Poll set off a national firestorm in May when results from a Florida survey showing Republican presidential hopeful Mitt Romney with a lead over President Barack Obama in that state were challenged by Democratic strategists. The fact that the results from a survey in a critical state such as Florida were so hotly debated six months before the general election is a testament to how far the poll has come.
Begun in 1988 as a marketing research project, and housed in its infancy in a small room near the college cafeteria, the Quinnipiac University Poll in Hamden has grown into a nationally recognized public opinion survey operating in a $2 million state-of-the-art facility. Its surveys are featured on CNN, MSNBC, Fox and other media outlets. In Connecticut, it’s become the poll politicians bite their nails over and journalists mine for stories.
Douglas Schwartz, hired as director of the poll in 1994 when the university expanded polling beyond Connecticut, realized that to professionalize the survey, it would have to operate year-round with paid researchers. “We couldn’t just hope enough students would sign up; we had to make sure we had enough staff,” he says.
The “Q-Poll” now conducts surveys in Connecticut, New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Florida, Ohio and Virginia, plus separate New York City polls and national surveys.
Quinnipiac University Vice President for Public Affairs Lynn Bushnell admits the poll is a boon for the school. As a respected survey that performs “a public service,” it “certainly helps raise our profile to a greater audience,” she says. Early on, the states added to the poll “mirrored those from which [the University] draws the greatest number of students.”
Schwartz says the new building makes it possible to conduct polls for more than one state at a time. The facility, which opened in November 2007, has room for 150 interviewers churning out 1,000 completed questionnaires for most polls, 2,000 for national surveys. A supervisor hub handles questions, listens in on calls and makes sure data is entered properly. The staff includes experts on specific states who are required to stay up on the politics and talk with the local political reporters from each state. Schwartz is a jack-of-all-trades who concentrates on the big picture and issues in all states.
Candidates often claim polls turn campaigns into horse races—who’s ahead or behind becomes the headline. Schwartz doesn’t deny that but says, “We do a lot more than horse-race polling. We poll on issues such as medical marijuana, the death penalty and Sunday liquor sales in Connecticut.”
Issue polling on the Connecticut death penalty put the Malloy administration at odds with the poll. A March poll showed 62 percent of those surveyed viewed repeal of the death penalty as a “bad idea.” The governor’s office complained the poll didn’t ask voters if they prefer the death penalty or life in prison. When a Q-Poll one month later did ask that question voters split evenly at 46 percent.
Roy Occhiogrosso, Gov. Dannel Malloy’s senior advisor, says, “support for the death penalty dropped, all because he [Schwartz] added a different option.” Malloy signed the death penalty repeal bill into law but Occhiogrosso remains irked about the Q-Poll questions. “People say statistics can be manipulated to show anything you want—so can polls,” he says.
Schwartz says the March poll focused on the repeal bill and that other questions in the April poll continued to show public support for the death penalty and for execution of the 11 men already on Connecticut’s death row.
“We’ve had plenty of disgruntled politicians and public figures over time call us to complain, from both sides of the aisle, and we take that as confirmation we are unbiased in our approach,” says Bushnell. “It just goes with the territory.”
Gov. Malloy won’t comment on polls, and some say it’s because his numbers have been weak. Voters gave him a 37 percent job approval rating in the April Q-Poll. Generally ratings below 50 percent spell trouble for incumbents. Occhiogrosso says, “Public opinion has been measured for a long time, so you learn to live with [polls].” He claims journalists “cover them because it’s an easy story, they get attention, so [polls] have some level of influence—for better or worse.”
Schwartz defends his poll: “We have no axe to grind. We don’t take funding from outside sources. We’re trusted by the media and public. We just want the most accurate ‘read’ on public opinion we can get.”
To that end, the Q-Poll balances its survey with calls to both voters with cell phones and those who have traditional land lines. Cell phone users tend to be younger, Schwartz says, “so if you don’t call people on cell phones you underrepresent young people in your polls.”
Do polls change minds? “I’ve never seen a study that shows people will change their votes on the basis of a poll,” says Schwartz.