The first time Jeremy Revelise tried his hand at political polling he wondered if he even deserved a second chance.
Then a college sophomore, Revelise spent five hours calling North Carolina residents with a list of questions for the Elon University Poll. He got responses from just one person. “I liked it, but I was thinking, ‘That’s horrible!’” recalls Revelise, a double major in economics and policy studies.
But he stuck with it, and, now a senior at Elon, Revelise serves as one of a handful of student polling supervisors. The odds of success, he says, haven’t improved that much. About 75 percent of the people contacted by Elon’s student pollsters don’t answer the phone (roughly 60 percent of the polling calls go to cell phones) and 10 percent hang up after they answer. That’s in line with the industry average. It’s that last 10 or 15 percent that makes it all worthwhile.
“I enjoy hearing different people’s opinions on issues,” Revelise says. “I’m kind of a politics nerd.”
For decades, politically neutral university polls have performed a valuable public service here. They play a key role in sizing up public opinion among Tar Heels while also providing the nation with insights into the mood of an increasingly influential swing state. UNC-Chapel Hill ran a widely recognized poll from the early 1980s until 2000. That was the same year Elon launched its poll. High Point University followed 10 years later with its own poll.
FiveThirtyEight.com, the website run by renowned statistician Nate Silver, thinks they’re both doing an above average job. Silver’s site grades polls throughout the country for their methodology and accuracy. Most polls get Cs. Elon, however, earned a B, which is the same grade awarded to the CBS/New York Times poll. High Point received a B-.
Kenneth Fernandez, director of Elon’s poll for the past four years, recalls getting less generous marks when he showed up at Charlotte’s Democratic National Convention in 2012 with some unwelcome news. Elon’s polling data showed Mitt Romney holding a narrow lead over Barack Obama in North Carolina’s presidential race and Pat McCrory wielding a bigger advantage in the gubernatorial race. “They weren’t that thrilled with the results,” says Fernandez, assistant professor in Elon’s Department of Political Science and Policy Studies.
But the numbers ultimately proved right, which is why national outlets like Huffington Post and RealClearPolitics, as well as FiveThirtyEight, routinely cite the Elon University Poll.
Fernandez and his team of about 100 students waded into this year’s presidential election with a poll conducted in mid-February. Students worked five-hour shifts for five consecutive days – for which Elon, which fully funds this work, paid them $10 an hour. Over that time, students surveyed more than 1,500 likely voters across the state.
Range of issues
With North Carolina’s primary coming up Tuesday, the poll found that our state’s voters favor Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton in their respective primaries. In a presidential election matchup, the Elon data shows both Clinton and Bernie Sanders beating Trump – and Marco Rubio taking down both Clinton and Sanders. It also has Ted Cruz losing to Sanders and tying Clinton in head-to-head matchups. In the gubernatorial race – one of the most closely watched in the entire country – the Elon data found state Attorney General Roy Cooper holding a slim lead over Gov. McCrory.
A High Point University poll that was also conducted last month with a total of about 1,000 likely Democratic and Republican voters reached some similar conclusions, with Clinton and Trump emerging as preferred candidates, though Cruz and Rubio weren’t too far behind trump.
Though the presidential election is dominating the news, it’s not the only topic of interest to university pollsters. Over the past 10 years, the Elon Poll has surveyed state residents on more than 50 issues, ranging from climate change and gun control to toll roads and video poker. This summer, it will likely focus on Supreme Court cases before shifting back to presidential polling. High Point, meanwhile, has run an equally diverse array of polls exploring such topics as school safety and the economy.
For now, though, just about everyone – including the student pollsters – wants to talk about the November election. “This isn’t the most glamorous job,” Revelise says. “But it’s unique, and this year is especially great for us.”
Christopher Gergen is CEO of Forward Impact, a fellow in Innovation and Entrepreneurship at Duke University, and author of “Life Entrepreneurs: Ordinary People Creating Extraordinary Lives.” Stephen Martin, a director at the nonprofit Center for Creative Leadership, blogs at www.messyquest.com. They can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and followed on Twitter through @cgergen.