Bill Keller, courtesy of Muhlenberg College
First, there was door-to-door polling. A pollster, clipboard in hand, might knock on doors and ask, "Who are you going to vote for?"
Today, many of the top colleges that do public opinion polling for elections instead connect with voters over the phone. Student workers call cellphones and landlines, ask questions from a script and record answers. The four institutions -- Marist College, Monmouth University, Siena College and Muhlenberg College -- that receive an A-plus pollster rating from FiveThirtyEight, a popular analysis website, all currently use live calling.
Poll center officials from several of those universities typically said live calling makes the process accurate and student centered. Siena’s poll center employs about 150 students, with paths to advancement from interviewing to other polling jobs. Marist employs about 300 students. The polls also bring a good amount of publicity to each university, especially when they partner with news organizations.
But the live-calling system is being squeezed, and some polling centers are looking to transition to different methodologies, like online surveys or automated calling.
Don Levy, director of Siena’s polling institute, said the response rate for live calling has been steadily declining in recent decades. A poll now takes longer to complete than it did even two years ago, he said. That increased time translates to increased labor costs.
“There’s a growing hesitancy of people to simply answer a phone if they don’t know who it is,” Levy said. “Unfortunately for us, there are so many different processes that exist right now that people experience as a threat, whether it be unsolicited robocalls or unsolicited sale calls.” Newer phones also can screen out calls from numbers that are not saved contacts.
Christopher Borick, director of Muhlenberg's poll center, said the college is planning to switch to online surveys over the next few years, a method that will almost certainly use fewer students.
Muhlenberg’s polling center currently employs about 40 to 50 students, with 25 to 30 others being involved through classes. While many do calling, others work on data analysis, payroll and other areas. Many are proud to see their work making an impact, Borick said.
“You’ve kind of built your career around certain methodologies that have worked for you,” said Borick. “The reality is, the nadir of technology and communication has pushed those methods to the edge of their effectiveness. And for us, we’re right at that edge.”
He hopes the new methods will continue to keep some students at the center of the work. Polling with online surveys requires creating a panel of people who are a representative sample of a population and have opted in to taking surveys online. Students will likely be involved in managing the online panel.
“These are tough choices that are facing a lot of people at academic research organizations,” he said. “No matter what, there will be a student-heavy presence in all operations.”
Keeping Students Involved
Muhlenberg plans to wait until after the 2020 elections to begin the transition. During nonelection years, Muhlenberg and other colleges do contract polling for companies, nonprofits, school districts and libraries.
Levy said Siena's center plans to use live calling for the immediate future. Still, the college is dealing with many of the same challenges as Muhlenberg and has experimented with different methods.
“Even though telephone polling is not as efficient as it once was and it’s progressively more expensive, it remains the best methodology to get the most representative sample,” Levy said. “Everybody who does what we do is beginning to pursue other options because of the growing cost.”
Emerson College, which has a A-minus pollster rating from FiveThirtyEight, already uses automated methods for polling. Most of Emerson’s election polls are done via a mix of online surveys and a method called interactive voice response (IVR), which prompts participants to press different buttons for different survey answers.
“We’re kind of an incubator of ideas in the survey methodology area,” said Spencer Kimball, director of the center.
Students are involved in the process by doing data analysis, writing press releases and conducting studies on different methods. The polling center at Emerson typically has six to 12 student participants.
“Everything is a progression,” Kimball said, noting that polling by phone seemed crazy before it became ubiquitous. “We know this is a pretty popular method in industry.”
Florida Atlantic University, which also uses automated calling and online panels, emphasizes that these methods can help eliminate bias.
“The use of an automated polling system eliminates interviewer bias as all questions are asked in a single voice in English or Spanish,” according to the poll center's site. “IVR may be used by survey organizations for asking more sensitive questions where the investigators are concerned that a respondent might feel less comfortable providing these answers to a human interlocutor (such as questions about drug use or sexual behavior).”
Officials at Marist said that for them, live calling is here to stay.
“Telephone interviewing is still really the gold standard of doing scientific research in public opinion,” said Barbara Carvalho, director of Marist’s polling center.
Lee Miringoff, her co-director, said live calling has been proven to be accurate while the other methods are still being modeled. He said the motivation for moving to online "has not been the inaccuracy of the traditional methods, but has been cost and speed.”
The college tries to keep students heavily involved in all aspects. “The collection of scientific research is so important to so many disciplines,” Miringoff said. “This is a project that has to teach the students.”
The poll center runs an additional project, the Marist Poll Academy, which offers free online video courses on polling. Students have created scripts and animations for the academy.
Marist has done some experimenting with other methods, but only in situations where they have proven to be accurate, such for a nonprofit when a membership list is available.
Levy said there is no doubt that the industry is changing.
“This is a really interesting, some would say difficult, some would say exciting time to be a pollster,” he said. “Folks who have been in it as long as I have may not be the right ones to figure out what comes next. But there will be a next.”