Taubman Center to revise polling methods

Center has been criticized for not using voting records, which identify likely voters

Senior Staff Writer
Thursday, September 11, 2014

Under the new leadership of Director James Morone, professor of political science, public policy and urban studies, the Taubman Center for Public Policy and American Institutions plans to change its polling methodology in time for the November general election, said Shankar Prasad, the center’s new deputy director. 

Morone, who was appointed July 1, said the center plans to organize “a close overhaul” of its polling methods, The Herald previously reported.

The center’s polling techniques have faced criticism in the past for not utilizing voting records, Matt McDermott, a field director at Lake Research Partners from Warwick, told WPRI in April. Greater accuracy comes from collecting responses from likely voters based on their voting record, he added.

“If you’re trying to poll in a primary election, you’re talking about a significantly reduced turnout compared to general elections,” said Scott Keeter, director of survey research at the Pew Research Center. Though campaign pollsters tend to use voter histories, the quality of voting records can vary heavily from state to state, Keeter said, adding that it is easier to poll voters in New England due to the relatively high amount of landline phone numbers in state voting records.

The center currently uses “voter lists provided by the Secretary of State’s office,” according to its website. The sample of voters surveyed is drawn proportionally according to the population distribution of Rhode Island, and does not sample more than 500 or 600 people. Though the sample size is small, it yields an acceptable margin of error for a state as small as Rhode Island, according to the center’s website.

In August, the center released its poll results from a survey it conducted in April 2014 among likely Rhode Island voters on the gubernatorial primaries, the legalization of marijuana, the economy and approval ratings of current elected officials. The center made predictions for the Republican primary based on “just over 13 percent” of the 600 respondents who indicated they were “very likely” or “somewhat likely” to vote in the Republican gubernatorial primary, according to a University press release. Marion Orr, the former director of the center, was unable to provide the gender ratio of the 86 respondents, WPRI reported.

In states that lean significantly towards one political party — such as majority-blue Rhode Island — it can be challenging to poll the minority party for primaries, Keeter said.

The University of Minnesota received similar criticism when it predicted Democratic gubernatorial candidate Mark Dayton would win by 12 points, though he won the actual 2010 election by a slim 1.5-point margin, MinnPost reported.

“There were no systematic mistakes in the polling,” said Larry Jacobs, director of the Center for the Study of Politics and Governance, who directed the University of Minnesota’s poll.

“Doing polling is not just a methodology challenge,” Jacobs said. “The pollster becomes a part of the political process.”

“Campaigns have a tried and true practice on how to deal with polls where they don’t do well,” Jacobs said. Campaigns will try to discredit polls with unfavorable results by claiming that there were not enough young people or cell phone numbers, or they will try to invalidate computer-assisted polling techniques, he said. “What’s happening is a casualty of political warfare in the 21st century.”

This marks an opportunity to evaluate and possibly change polling at the University, Jacobs said, adding that even though certain critiques may be biased, this situation lets the University evaluate its own methodology.

In their new roles at the center, Prasad said he and Morone are “exploring innovative and creative ways to think about the study of public policy … (and) play a role in measuring the public opinion.”

The center is also looking to expand its reach by playing a role in regional and national policy issues in addition to local politics, Prasad said.

“One of the reasons I joined here and (Morone) joined here is that we really want to engage students as a pedagogical tool,” Prasad said, adding that the center hopes to employ its polls as a way to educate people about the political process.

Prasad said he is hopeful that the polls will be ready for the November general election. “We’re trying to redefine the polling center for this next wave, so we want to engage different communities through this process,” he said.

Though experts waver back and forth about how polling may or may not affect voter and donor behavior, Prasad said he believes polls engage voters in political activity. “I don’t think polls ever replace the democratic process or engagement in general. The difficulty with polls is that they’re an instance in time, and participation is an evolution.”

Though campaigns and private firms also conduct polls, University polls serve the critical purpose of adding more voices to the discussion, Prasad said.

“Our job is to provide information, and in this day and age, that is a valuable resource to our community,” Jacobs said.