miércoles, 13 de diciembre de 2017

The Poll That Built a University

Quinnipiac was a small college on the Eastern seaboard. Then John Lahey had a radical idea.

John Lahey arrived in Hamden, Connecticut, in 1987 with a mandate to grow a small college, Quinnipiac, into something much larger. Back then, the school, named for the Native American tribe that once inhabited the area, was a local commuter institution with just a few thousand students. But it had bigger ambitions.

A self-described “political junkie” from the Riverdale section of the Bronx, Lahey didn’t propose investing in Division I athletics or building a medical school, as other small colleges have done — though he would do both in the coming decades. He came up with a completely different idea for boosting Quinnipiac’s profile: a poll.

Lahey had come to Quinnipiac from Marist College, in New York’s Hudson Valley, where he had been the vice president in charge of fundraising. Marist had starting polling in the late 1970s, beginning with exit polls in local elections. By the early 1980s, Marist was polling statewide — and the national emergence of Mario Cuomo, New York’s charismatic governor, brought the school a fair amount of attention. “We continued to poll on Cuomo at a time when there were not a lot of independent polls that the media could depend on to not have a partisan bias,” said Lee Miringoff, the director of the Marist College Institute of Public Opinion. “Conveniently, from just a public standpoint, New York news about Mario Cuomo became national news.”

Lahey’s office was “10 feet away,” Miringoff said, and the lanky administrator took notice. Lahey recalled pushing Miringoff to be more ambitious. “I asked Lee at the time, ‘Hey, could you do a statewide poll?’” Lahey said. “He said, ‘Oh, yeah. I just need more phones.’ I had the biggest phone bank on campus because we were using it for fundraising. I didn’t start the Marist poll, but I [basically] started it as most people came to learn what it was.”

The first Quinnipiac poll started in much the same way, using the phone banks dedicated to the school’s fundraising efforts. But Lahey, drawing on his experience at Marist, thought the poll could help with the school’s expansion plans. When he took over as president of Quinnipiac, the school had fewer than 2,000 students, with the vast majority coming from Connecticut. Lahey was fascinated by New York politics — both city and state — and started there. But Quinnipiac didn’t stop there, in what Lahey described as a coordinated effort to build up the school’s name identification across the country. In each state Quinnipiac would poll, local media would write about the results in the newspaper, or cover the survey on television and radio.

“If you were to follow our admissions and our growth, you could follow the poll,” Lahey said. “We went into New York. You could see the applications increase. Now, it wasn’t just the poll. We started doing advertising in New York and elsewhere — alumni events and so on. But the poll was far and away the most significant thing. You could see the growth into New York, into New Jersey, Pennsylvania.”

Florida came next, with its Northeast transplants.

Today, Quinnipiac is the most significant player among a number of schools that have established a national polling footprint. And as media organizations’ budgets have shrunk and polling costs have skyrocketed, these schools have become the dominant sources of pre-election polling data in many states.

The Quinnipiac poll is prolific: The school’s polling institute has conducted 20 separate national surveys so far in 2017 — plus 8 polls in Virginia, 7 in New Jersey, 5 in New York City and 2 in New York state. Their final polls in the gubernatorial races in Virginia and New Jersey came close to nailing the final margins in both states. This isn’t some fly-by-night operation: The institute’s employees complete live interviews with tens of thousands of registered voters every year.

But much of Quinnipiac’s prominence in the field is also a result of its commitment to self-promotion. The poll reports to the university’s public-affairs office, not any academic wing of the school. For decades, Quinnipiac employed high-powered New York publicist Howard Rubenstein to connect the poll with reporters. And from the outset, Quinnipiac also hired prominent journalists to serve as spokesmen for the poll, offering up pithy quotes in press releases and holding news conferences in state capitals. (One of these spokesman, Mickey Carroll, the former dean of the New York City press corps, died earlier this month.)

The Quinnipiac University Polling Institute now has its own building near campus, a two-story facility built in 2008. In total, the school lays out more than $2 million every year on the poll.

And Lahey says it’s worth every penny. “I think it’s the best money that we’ve ever spent to maintain the national profile, increase the national profile” of the university, he told me.


The first Quinnipiac polls were as Lahey put it, “off-Broadway, here in Connecticut, to make sure we got our act together.” Paul Falcigno, then a professor in the business school, had experience with market research and was tapped as the first director of the college’s polling institute.

“Turns out, Paul Falcigno was pretty good on the science side,” Lahey recalled. “He was terrible at the PR side. I still remember him on [Hartford’s CBS affiliate] on some election night. They asked him a question, and he, like, froze on TV. It seemed like it was an hour, you know? I’m sure it was only 30 seconds.”

Today, Quinnipiac polls in nine separate states, in addition to conducting national surveys and New York City-specific surveys. Lahey credits the poll with taking Quinnipiac from a small, commuter college in 1987 to a nationally known university today. “It was so integral to the growth and development of Quinnipiac, going from 1,900 students 30 years ago — 80 percent of whom were in Connecticut — to 10,000 students today, 80 percent of whom are outside Connecticut,” Lahey said, describing the poll as “a major part of the whole strategic marketing and development of the university.”

Often, the first major step to getting the Quinnipiac name out there was teaching people how to pronounce it. “The name was mangled — kwin-uh-PE-ack, or kwin-uh-PACK,” said Doug Schwartz, who’s been the director of the university’s polling institute since 1995. “Now I don’t see that as much. That’s a good thing. People have learned how to properly pronounce a difficult name.” (For the record, it’s KWIN-uh-pe-ack, as the institute’s press releases — still emailed to reporters by Rubenstein’s PR firm — still remind reporters.)

April Radocchio, the assistant director of the institute, has also been there since the 1990s, starting as an interviewer. “In the beginning, they had no idea what a ‘Quinnipiac’ was,” she said. “And now, many, many people recognize the name.”


At about 5:30 p.m. on a recent evening, scores of people came streaming through the doors of the polling facilities, ready to start dialing. Callers at the institute’s headquarters — a building just off-campus that overlooks Mount Carmel — sit at rows of beige and wood desks, armed with a computer and a manual dialer. FCC rules prohibit calling cell phone numbers with computerized dialers, so interviewers enter each phone number by hand just to be safe. At a time when others are experimenting with new, often-less-expensive methodologies, Quinnipiac uses roughly the same, old-fashioned model of polling that has been the field’s gold standard since the 1970s — even as fewer Americans are willing to talk to pollsters over the phone.

On this night, the interviewers were calling registered voters across the country for a national poll, beginning around 6 p.m. with phone numbers in the Eastern Time Zone. They finish with calls in the Pacific Time Zone about midnight local time. (Because of the time difference, Quinnipiac, like some other pollsters, doesn’t call phone numbers in Alaska or Hawaii.)

TV monitors around the interviewers display news headlines from previous Quinnipiac polls, or facts about the poll they’re conducting that night. At one point during the national poll on this night, a smiling Donald Trump appears with two lines of all-caps text above his image: “PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES” and “DONALD TRUMP (R).”

The entire operation comes at a steep cost. “We spend a little over $2 million a year. But a million of it is students, callers. It’s the best job on campus,” Lahey said. “For me, $2 million-plus out of a $500 million budget is not peanuts — but it’s a relatively small amount for the amount of good PR and the visibility it gets to the university.”

Callers — a mixture of students and non-students from the surrounding area — are paid $12 an hour to call randomly generated phone numbers and ask to speak to the registered voter in the household with the next birthday coming up. The institute employs a little over 200 students every semester but pays them the same as the other interviewers.

Lexi Courtney, a Quinnipiac senior, said it was a good campus job because of the institute’s flexibility. “It’s easy. It’s simple. It’s easy to pick up shifts. If I’m too busy with school, I can say, ‘Hey, can I take a shift out?’” Courtney said, though she also acknowledged that the job “can be very boring” when only a few calls a night result in completed interviews.

Courtney is originally from Oregon and transferred to Quinnipiac to play softball. But she said even friends and family out west recognized the name of the Connecticut school to which she’d be transferring. “Especially when I was saying, ‘I’m going to Quinnipiac,’ Courtney recalled. “And everyone was like, ‘The poll!’”


Dozens of colleges and universities conduct public-opinion polls. Roughly half the states across the country have schools that conduct regular, in-state surveys.

Other small schools have tried to copy Quinnipiac’s model, including Marist and Monmouth University, a school in central New Jersey. But there are some differences. Quinnipiac and Monmouth conduct polls under their own banner, while Marist partners with news organizations (current partners include NBC News, the Wall Street Journal, NPR and the PBS Newshour). The New York Times has worked with Siena College on a few polls outside New York. Suffolk University in Boston polled outside Massachusetts, too. Also in Boston, the student-run Emerson College Polling Society has recently dipped its toes into the special Senate election in Alabama this month with less-expensive surveys that don’t require live interviewers.

Most of the schools stay within their own states, but they are also getting more attention than ever. Of the 13 public polls conducted in the week prior to this year’s gubernatorial election in Virginia, 7 were from colleges, including Christopher Newport University and Roanoke College in Virginia.

Those schools aren’t always in it for the attention. More often, they are serving an academic mission — though the publicity that goes along with election polls doesn’t hurt.

“We’re a public liberal arts college. We’re very focused on civic engagement and public policy exposure for students,” said Rachel Bitecofer, the assistant director of the Wason Center for Public Policy at Christopher Newport, a school in Newport News with around 5,000 students. “Certainly, there is a marketing aspect to having a survey that’s going to be discussed on national news. For us, that’s a secondary motivation.”

Some of the more prolific polling colleges claim an academic purpose, too. Miringoff called Marist’s polling institute, which has 300 students who do the interviewing, an “educational laboratory.” But the Marist Poll also gets the university’s name out there through its partnerships with news organizations, its social media accounts and — it is 2017, after all — a weekly podcast.

Monmouth University, in central New Jersey, doesn’t have a cell center on campus like Quinnipiac or Marist. Patrick Murray, the founding director of the Monmouth University Polling Institute, said the institute exists mostly to facilitate student, faculty and nonprofit research. “The public polling really is a lead for the other stuff we do here,” said Murray, referring to the institute’s election surveys.

But within five years, the mission had expanded. “We started branching out with occasional polls in other parts of the country in 2010,” said Murray. “Then in 2012, we did a few national polls. Then [we] did more Senate races in 2014. At the same time, we had a new president come in who realized there was some marketing potential in what we were doing.”

“When I started out in this business, most institutions did not see the benefit to this. If it was not directly serving a faculty-research agenda, or it was not teaching students, then it was just some fluff,” added Murray. “To be honest, Quinnipiac changed all that.”


It might feel like polling is everywhere, but the truth is there are fewer high-quality polls than there were a decade ago. Polling is more expensive — many Americans have abandoned traditional, landline phones and are less willing to participate in polls even if they can be reached. At the same time, the media organizations that once sponsored public polling — local television affiliates and regional newspapers — have seen their budgets slashed.

In Virginia this year, the vast majority of the polls could be divided into three categories: Partisan polls, mostly released by Republican firms and groups hoping to paint GOP nominee Ed Gillespie’s chances in a more optimistic light; automated or online polls that cost less to produce; and live-interview polls from academic institutions.

Quinnipiac stands to gain from these changes in the polling landscape — if the school continues its significant financial commitment. Lahey, the poll’s champion, is retiring as president next summer, and a new president hasn’t yet been selected.

For his part, Lahey said the poll will be “very safe” in his absence. “If a candidate coming in for my successor doesn’t appreciate what the poll means to this university, we probably ought not to appoint them,” Lahey said. “I think there’s no question that the poll gives us visibility with a national audience that nothing else at the university really does.”

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