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Tiny schools rank among polling’s biggest names

Elections lift schools’ profiles

HAMDEN, Conn. – Americans addicted to political polls can get their fix these days from a growing number of colleges and universities that measure the ups and downs of presidential candidates Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton in a tumultuous election year.

But the leaders in this expansion of academic polling are hardly household names outside of politics, including Marist College in New York, Monmouth University in New Jersey, Suffolk University in Massachusetts and Quinnipiac University here in Connecticut.

For these schools, polling in a polarized America yields a marketing bonanza akin to what others might reap through college football bowl games or the NCAA basketball tournament. They are building brands through surveys of political battlegrounds.

Monmouth, a private university with 6,400 students on the Jersey Shore, was little known beyond its state until recently. In 2007-08, it conducted eight election polls, all in New Jersey. During this cycle, it has conducted more than 60, moving into swing states as far away as Colorado and Nevada.

“I am looking for visibility for my faculty, my staff and my university,” Monmouth President Paul R. Brown said. “I will take visibility many different ways – and this is one.”

During the past quarter-century, Quinnipiac has leveraged political polling as aggressively as any school in the country to raise its national profile. It has morphed from a sleepy private college, with fewer than 3,000 students in the mid-1980s, to a university with medical, law and engineering schools that expects to enroll nearly 10,000 this fall.

Quinnipiac also has drawn attention for its strong ice hockey team in a region where the sport is popular. The Bobcats reached the NCAA championship game twice in the past four years, losing to nearby Yale in 2013 and North Dakota this year. But it is polling that has turbocharged the school’s marketing.

Just before the party conventions in July, Quinnipiac released surveys showing tight Clinton-Trump matchups in the swing states of Florida, Ohio and Pennsylvania. That generated priceless and immediate publicity.

“You do a statewide poll in Florida, it’s in 200 newspapers,” said Quinnipiac President John Lahey. “It’s on every local station all over Florida.”

Lahey is mindful that there are not just 29 electoral votes in the Sunshine State. There are also hundreds of thousands of high school students. The university recruits where it surveys, tying the work into a much broader strategy right from the start, Lahey said. His goal is to transform Quinnipiac “into a major national university.”

On a recent summer evening, the Quinnipiac call center crackled with the din of voices reading the latest scripted questions aimed at taking the temperature of the riled-up American electorate. There are 153 stations inside the center, and the university plans to add 47 for the fall campaign. Callers are paid a starting rate of $10.50 an hour.

Some are retirees looking for extra income, such as 85-year-old Virginia King at Terminal 113. Some are students, such as 21-year-old Alana Perrotta, who laughed as she wrapped up an interview at Terminal 80.

“That was a really funny one,” she said. Perrotta, from New Jersey, is a senior majoring in English and broadcast journalism. She had been quizzing a jaded young voter from the Bronx on a local contest coming up in New York. Over and over, she read him the names of the candidates. Each time, he said no.

Which is not a usable answer for a scientific poll. Eventually, Perrotta’s patience paid off, and the voter voiced his preference. “I had to get him to say the name,” she said.

Just as important for Quinnipiac, Perrotta opened the interview by saying her school’s own mouthful of a name. KWIN-uh-pe-ack, the phonetic rendition of the pronunciation, is also spelled out in every one of the school’s polling news releases.

Political polling, which emerged in the 20th century through the influence of such pioneers as Elmo Roper, Louis Harris and George Gallup, has proliferated in recent years as political parties, consultants, candidates and the public have demanded ever more data, in real time, about the nation’s voters. Colleges have joined a vast field of specialists - some polling for profit, some not - and media outlets that research public opinion. At the same time, debate has risen about the accuracy of polls in an era of rapid changes in demographics and communications technology.

So how do the college pollsters compare to their peers outside academia?

The website FiveThirtyEight, which analyzed the accuracy and methodology of polls going back several elections, rated Monmouth’s an A-plus as of July 15, Marist’s an A, Quinnipiac’s an A-minus and Suffolk’s a B-plus. The George Washington University Battleground poll received a B.

Those were at least on par with marks given to many of the nonacademic names in the field. Mason-Dixon Polling & Research got a B-plus and Gallup a B-minus. Several major news organizations were given A’s or A-minuses. (Washington Post-ABC News polls were graded A-plus.)

Many schools specialize in home-state polls. Muhlenberg and Franklin & Marshall colleges are known for Pennsylvania polling. Christopher Newport University and Roanoke College survey regularly in Virginia, which has emerged as a battleground in the past decade.

Often, college polls are led by a professor with expertise in their state and public policy. Christopher Borick, who teaches political science at Muhlenberg, has been polling since 2001 for the private college in Allentown, Pennsylvania, which has 2,400 students. His surveys often study energy and the environment. But he also knows how to call a political horse race.

“When I put out a poll, I do a lot of the contextual analysis,” Borick said. “I know Pennsylvania politics. Part of what a college can do is to add, with us academics, the analysis, the background, the context, the history.”

Borick said he frequently gets calls from peers at other colleges who want to know how to start a poll. “Often, they are smaller places without gigantic name recognition,” he said. Their goal, in many cases, is “Hey, how can we use this to build a name brand?”

Many schools keep their polling budgets under wraps. One pollster said his school spends about $130,000 a year for a modest number of home-state polls. Other annual budgets are thought to range from several hundred thousand dollars a year to well over $1 million.

Quinnipiac won’t say what it spends on its large polling operation. But for perspective, it spends $125 million a year on academic instruction.

Some colleges team with news media to share costs and analytical expertise. In June, the University of Southern California launched a daily national election poll with the Los Angeles Times. Suffolk partners with USA Today on national polls.

Marist works with McClatchy News Service on national surveys as well as with NBC News and the Wall Street Journal on select battleground state polls. These partnerships deliver a bonus for the 6,400-student school in Poughkeepsie, New York, said Marist pollster Lee Miringoff: prominent, repeated coverage from the television network, the news service and the national newspaper.

But with publicity comes risk for institutions that prize their reputation for independence and authority. “You’re only as good as your last poll,” Miringoff said. “I worry about it for a lot of reasons: the reputation of the poll, the name of the college, our media partners. . . . We don’t want to be part of the ‘polls are wrong’ story.”

FiveThirtyEight’s analysis of 146 Marist polls found that 88 percent called races correctly. Of 169 Quinnipiac polls, the analysis found, 87 percent called races correctly.

Quinnipiac pollster Doug Schwartz still winces at his first big miss - in 1994, the year he started here, when surveys were still done with paper and pencil in a room with 12 phones. His final poll in the New York gubernatorial race that fall showed Democrat Mario Cuomo cruising toward reelection 10 days before the vote. But Republican George Pataki surged to a solid victory in a big year for the GOP.

“The lesson I learned was: Don’t stop polling so far out,” Schwartz said. But in 1998, he was on the money with a poll that showed Democrat Charles Schumer unseating Sen. Alfonse D’Amato, R-New York, by a comfortable margin. And in 2012, his polling predicted President Obama’s triumphs over Republican Mitt Romney in Florida, Ohio and Virginia. Margins of error bedevil pollsters in swing states like those, especially when the winner finishes only a percentage point or two ahead.

“Nailing an election exactly dead on is luck,” Schwartz said. “But we should get as close as we possibly can to the margin.”

For Quinnipiac, the growth of the polling shop since 1988 has coincided with the growth of the school as a whole. In that time, the college became a university, added two campuses, built a sports arena with sweeping hilltop views of Long Island Sound, opened a host of online and graduate programs, and grew its endowment to $368 million. Its medical school’s first class will graduate next year. It draws 23,000 undergraduate applicants a year and admits about 65 percent - a measure of demand and selectivity unknown a few decades ago.

“It’s crazy how it has grown even in the past five years,” said Jenna Mojkowski, 22, who earned a bachelor’s degree here in 2014 and is working toward a doctorate in physical therapy. She said she is struck by how often the university is mentioned on cable television because of its polling. “You see it on the news. People now know what Quinnipiac is.”

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