PPP pollster talks about being at the top

jfrank@newsobserver.comNovember 14, 2012 

Tom Jensen, director of Public Policy Polling

TOM JENSEN

— The 2012 presidential election will be remembered as the year of the pollster. And Raleigh’s Public Policy Polling finished at the top of the list.

The Democratic firm led by pollster Tom Jensen is earning accolades as one of the most accurate polling firms in the presidential race, serving as a rebuke to the pundits and partisans who trashed the company’s automated surveys and the broader polling field.

PPP conducted more than 1,000 surveys this year for public and private clients, earning revenue topping $1 million – a six-fold increase from the 2008 election.

The operation includes four full-time employees with support staff from owner Dean Debnam’s Workplace Options, which shares the offices.

Jensen, a 29-year-old Chapel Hill resident and five-year polling veteran, serves as director and chief pollster.

In an interview, he discussed PPP’s secret formula and the newfound attention on polling. Below is an edited excerpt from the conversation.

Q: Fordham University ranked PPP the No. 1 pollster in 2012. How did you do it?

The key thing with polling this year was whether folks thought that the electorate was going to be like it was in 2008 again with huge turnout from African-Americans and Hispanics and young voters, or if it was going to be more like 2004 when there was an older and whiter electorate. And what we saw from very early in the year was that the single group that was most excited about voting this year was African-Americans.

We weighted our polls based on the assumption that the electorate would look just like it did in 2008 ... and that really is what made the difference between our polls and a lot of other polls, Gallup in particular, [and] Rasmussen, who undershot President Barack Obama. They were projecting those groups wouldn’t come back out.

Q: How can all polling companies produce different numbers?

We’ve gotten to the point where the art form of polling – the weighting – is as important, if not more important, to determining whether a poll is accurate than the scientific part. Every poll regardless of the methodology gets back messy raw data that’s not fully reflective of the electorate as a whole and you do have to do a lot of weighting to try to get that right. Different pollsters are going to come to different conclusions about what that weighting should look like especially along race and age lines.

Q: What do you do to make your polls more accurate?

The first thing is for every poll that we do, we call everybody in our respondent pool six times over the course of three or four days. The reason that’s important is because people are just harder to reach nowadays. If you only call them once you are really just doing a poll of people who were at home between 7 and 9 on Thursday night. And what we find in particular is that Democratic leaning demographics are harder to get in touch with.

One other thing we do that is different from a lot of media polls is that we call off of voter lists. So we are calling people who have a history of voting in elections. I think that makes for a better likely voter screen than if you are just calling any number in the phone book.

Q: You majored in political science at UNC-Chapel Hill. You’re not a statistician, how did you get into this?

I’ve always been very comfortable with math, so even though I wasn’t a statistics major in college, all of this kind of stuff is kind of intuitive to me. And it’s definitely a situation of where we have gotten better about weighting our polls as we have gone along because we’ve learned from our mistakes. So we’ve gradually gotten better at what the race and gender and demographic data should be.

Q: If polls can predict the winner, why bother to vote?

I think what it does is give us scientific data about what people really think about what’s going on instead of letting a talking head on CNN, MSNBC or Fox News tell us what is going on.

Where that particularly comes into play, is there were so many things over the course of the year that the media got so obsessed with for a day: Romney advisor saying “etch-a-sketch” or Obama saying “you didn’t build that.” And the media will take those things and build them into something so huge. I think what the polling does is figure out which of those things really matter, and which ones really don’t. For instance, polling found out that 47 percent comments really did matter and they hurt Mitt Romney’s chances.

Q: What was your biggest polling mistake?

We had Obama winning the Pennsylvania primary in 2008 when Hillary ended up winning by 12 points. So that was incredibly embarrassing.

Q: PPP does automated polls and doesn’t call cell phones. Will this system work in 2016?

Our top order of business for 2013 is figuring out ways to integrate cell phones into our polls. It’s just too large a percentage of the population now to just ignore cell phones. The days when you could reach everyone in the population by just one form of communication is probably over. In the ’50s and ’60s people went and interviewed people in their homes. And really for 30 or 40 years now you could just call someone on the telephone and that’s how you did polling. I think we are going to get to a situation in the next four to eight years where older people you still need to contact by telephone, but that lots of other segments of the population you might reach online, you might send them a poll through a text.

Q: One campaign where you didn’t poll: your failed bid for student body president at UNC-Chapel Hill in 2005. Would it have helped you win?

I actually learned a lot in my SBP race at Carolina that is very important for running a polling company. Because I had a very insider-oriented campaign, I won all the endorsements, I won the debates and then I got 18 percent of the vote in the actual election.

And what that taught me is the average voter – and when you’re polling that’s who you really need to worried about – didn’t care about any of the stuff I was talking about. They voted for the guy who promised to bring a Wendy’s to campus. I think being a North Carolina-based pollster helps us some as opposed to being a Washington, D.C.-based pollster because I think a lot of Washington-based pollsters sit around in their office watching Fox News and MSNBC all day and sort of think that’s what everyone’s doing, and that such-and-such story is a really big deal. We have no TVs in our office.

Frank: 919-829-4698

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