Caller I.D. makes it easy to screen calls, but Hunter Bacot hopes you'll answer the phone.
An associate professor of political science at Elon University, Bacot is director of the Elon University Poll, which conducts an average of five telephone public opinion surveys per year about anything from hurricane preparedness in North Carolina to the president's job performance.
Bacot takes pride in the uniqueness of the poll, which is run primarily by student volunteers. While most polls are funded by a specific client, which often means that only registered voters are surveyed, the Elon Poll is funded by the university, allowing for more neutral questions and for a pool of respondents that includes more than just registered voters.
"Everybody deserves a voice in the process," Bacot said. "We're out there with no allegiance. ... (The information) is not clouded with ideological information and cues."
Bacot, 49, attributes his interest in politics to a heavily political family. His grandfather was sheriff of Mecklenburg County from the 1940s to the 1960s, and his father and brother ran for Charlotte City Council.
"I remember sitting on the tailgate of our station wagon when I was 6 years old pulling out campaign posters and handing them to people and putting them on telephone poles," he said.
It came as no surprise that Bacot studied political science at the UNC-Chapel Hill and to went on to earn a master's degree in public administration from UNC Charlotte and a doctorate in political science from the University of Tennessee.
It was in graduate school that Bacot became interested in polling. As a fellow at an environmental center in the 1980s, he helped put together public opinion surveys about environmental issues.
Elon was a good fit
When he was given the opportunity in 2005 to become director of the Elon Poll, Bacot jumped at the chance.
"My wife was working at Elon and she always talked about how nice it was and how good the students were ... and I thought it would be a tremendous opportunity," he said.
Bacot has become the voice of the poll; his commentary is sought after by the likes of The New York Times, National Journal and The Associated Press. He is also well-known on the North Carolina political circuit, giving lectures and presentations about the poll's findings and his own observations about political issues.
Jonathan Kappler, research director of the pro-business research and advocacy group North Carolina FreeEnterprise Foundation, said it often invites Bacot to speak on discussion panels because of his ability to use information from polls and give his unique perspective.
Bacot also teaches both graduate and undergraduate courses, usually two classes per semester on topics ranging from an introduction to U.S. government to environmental policy. His favorite, of course, is his public opinion polling class.
"It's a wonderful course from a professional perspective because I know that they're coming in there with cynicism, because everyone thinks people lie to pollsters. I can see them come in jaded and leave with a different perspective," Bacot said.
Bacot said he also enjoys students' surprise at the difficulty of crafting questions that will get good responses.
"People don't understand how much debate goes into writing a question - a single word can change the meaning" and the kind of responses you get, he said.
A changing state
In recent years, North Carolina has become a swing state in national elections, something Bacot attributes largely to the state's changing demographics. For example, he said, Republicans from New England may become independents in the South because they "don't share all the perspectives of a Southern conservative, who is generally more socially conservative."
"There are people moving in from all over the country that bring new perspectives to the area. ... It's fun to watch," he said.
This means that more people are interested in North Carolina polling data, particularly from nonpartisan groups such as Elon.
"The next two to six years in North Carolina are going to be pretty telling about the future of the state politically," Bacot said. "There's a lot of change in what issues are important."