Accurate polling brings national credibility to society

by Ross Cristantiello / Beacon Staff • March 31, 2016

On the brink of the 2016 presidential elections, the Emerson College Polling Society nearly tripled the number of polls it conducted this semester.

The campus group’s results have reached a national audience, garnering media recognition from outlets like MSNBC, Yahoo, and the Associated Press. According to Spencer Kimball, ECPS’ faculty advisor, this jump in both the number and scale of outlets using Emerson polls is attributed to two key factors: remarkable accuracy and Republican candidate Donald Trump.

“When [Trump] announced our poll, it totally changed the way that people were thinking of us,” Kimball said.

At a press conference before the Iowa Caucus on Feb. 1, Trump cited an Emerson poll that showed him leading by 10 points in Iowa. Trump called Emerson a “great college” and “very important.” According to Kimball, Trump built up Emerson to legitimize a poll showing his popularity.

Following this recognition, ECPS released a final poll of Iowa before the caucuses, which garnered media coverage for its accuracy. These results showed Trump with an extremely slight lead over Ted Cruz, while most other pollsters predicted a Trump victory by a wide margin. Since Trump ended up losing to Cruz, Emerson proved to be the most spot-on prediction of Iowa’s Republican caucuses.

While the accuracy of Emerson’s polls paired with Trump’s knack for getting attention has thrust the ECPS into a national spotlight, a lot of work has gone on behind the scenes in the organization.

 

The method to the madness

Kimball said that ECPS’ success in these recent polls can be attributed to their new methodology.

“Each time we do a poll, we’re not just publishing the poll and moving on,” Kimball said. “We’re studying what we got right and what we got wrong and our accuracy has gotten better.”

The students in the organization are solely responsible for deciding which polls they will put out. They research and propose questions, usually with a heavy emphasis on politics. Topics that appear in headlines, like sports news or current events, sometimes inspire polls, too.

ECPS conducts their work using an interactive voice recognition system of polling, also known as IVR. According to Kimball, Emerson is the only college in the country using the system, which automatically calls thousands of households for a fraction of the cost that would accompany a poll done by having volunteers individually call each number. IVR is popular with private pollsters, but is rarely studied in a collegiate setting.

Live calling is the traditional method, Kimball said, but IVR offers a way to conduct more polls for a cheaper price and therefore acquire more accurate results.

“People are very slow to move on from their methods,” Kimball said

Chris Kane, one of the presidents of the society, is a political communication major who has been studying polling since 2013. She enrolled at Emerson after a career in corporate communication. Now, she oversees the ECPS’ process from beginning to end.

After the questions are created, the poll itself is recorded and a voting sample is purchased. This sample is a list of voters who the ECPS then calls, according to Kane. Thousands of calls are made to get the numbers of responses required for accuracy.

These calls are usually made over the course of two or three days. The group tries to reach out in the evening, when people are more likely to be home, Kane said.

The data is collected automatically and comes back to the ECPS as one large Excel spreadsheet file. The team eliminates invalid responses and organizes the data, and afterward, the group meets to look over the results and pick out the most interesting findings. The last step is to draft a press release that is presented with the raw data on the organization’s website.

 

Publishing and promoting

According to Kane, polls are marketed in a variety of ways. The ECPS generally sends press releases directly to some media outlets like The Huffington Post and Bloomberg and posts it online through social media.

“In the last few months we’ve started tweeting our results and we’ve gotten a tremendous response from that,” Kane said.

Besides Trump’s namedrop and their accurate Iowa predictions, another key factor in the ECPS’ rising popularity is their social media presence. Before the primaries, the ECPS had around 200 followers on Twitter, Kane said. Now, they have 1,860. A recent video put online by the ECPS has surpassed 20,000 views. The Facebook page currently has 2,160 likes, far more than even the Emerson College Department of Communication Studies, which has 574 likes.

“I think our efforts at media outreach have gotten stronger” said Hannah Ritter, a senior political communications major and the other co-president of ECPS. “I think that is in part due to the continuing relationships we have with high profile media networks.”

 

Pollsters in the limelight

This social media outreach has not only drawn ordinary people to ECPS, but has also helped attract media professionals. One of these pundits is Brett Winterble, a radio host whose self-titled show airs on 760 AM in San Diego. Winterble said he originally caught wind of the ECPS through Twitter and started frequently referencing their polls after the organization’s success in Iowa.

“The accuracy is important,” Winterble said in a phone interview. “I would put Emerson right up there with the marquee pollsters in the nation.”

The current election season has not only increased the ECPS’ recognition, it has also made the students devote more time to the organization. Kane estimated that the core members of the ECPS have increased their time spent on poll-related work to five to seven hours per week.

The society is also conducting polls with more frequency now than they ever have in the past. In non-election years, the ECPS would generally release about five polls a semester. Now, they are working on their 13th since the current semester began.

This work is not for nothing, though. Students are getting invaluable experience in a unique field of work, according to Ritter.

“This is different than what we normally do at Emerson,” Ritter said. “It also gives you a very tangible way of looking at politics.”

Indeed, politics is at the heart and soul of the ECPS. The students involved are generally very interested in the topic, according to Kane.

“It’s a platform for students to always talk about politics,” Kane said. “Everybody’s always interested—so that’s fun.”

ECPS is currently working to release a poll they conducted in Wisconsin, ahead of the state’s primary on April 5. They will continue to survey through the end of the semester as more primaries take place and the national political picture becomes more clear.