It took four years.
In just four years, Emerson College Polling grew from a humble three-person organization to one that is now consistently cited among the most accurate pollsters in the country.
“Emerson keeps getting [recognized] as one of the most reliable sources,” said Abigail Silverman, MA ’18, a member of Emerson College Polling. “When Emerson puts out a poll, people are paying attention.”
It’s fair to say the 2016 U.S. Presidential Election helped put Emerson Polling on the map. During the primaries that spring, Emerson predicted the winners of 16 races in eight states 94 percent of the time. In the Iowa caucuses that year, which are notoriously difficult to poll, Emerson was the only one to show a late break for Texas Senator Ted Cruz over future president Donald Trump. Most polls had Trump winning by a landslide.
That's when seasoned politicos and national media outlets began taking note-from Nate Silver of FiveThirtyEight to MSNBC's Chris Matthews and Bill O'Reilly of Fox News. The Emerson Poll started getting cited in the Washington Post, TIME, The New Yorker, The Economist, Reuters, Business Insider, and others.
And in June 2018, after analyzing 19 organizations that conducted frequent campaign polls following the U.S. Presidential election, FiveThirtyEight ranked Emerson as the second-most accurate pollster in the country.
Now, heading into the 2018 midterm elections, Emerson College Polling is more crucial than ever in providing accurate political research and analysis.
DISRUPTING THE FIELD
Emerson has conducted polls since the mid-1990s, as part of the launch of the Political Communication master's program. But it took on a new form in 2012, when Spencer Kimball, assistant professor of communication studies, became the faculty advisor for the student-run Emerson College Polling Society. Working strategically to rethink the way polls were conducted, Kimball successfully helped grow Emerson College Polling into a well-regarded and increasingly accurate organization, amplifying the College's impact in politics.
Soon after becoming advisor to the group, Kimball introduced Emerson to the Interactive Voice Response (IVR) method, which is a method used in the field by practitioners, but hadn't yet been used by colleges or universities. With IVR, live operators are replaced by recorded prompts, and audience members provide their answers by speaking to a computer or dialing a response.
In making that shift, Emerson established credibility with its initial polls. Indeed, in 2013, Emerson Polling predicted Massachusetts Senator Ed Markey's 10-point victory over Gabriel Gomez and Virginia Governor Terry McAuliffe's 2-point victory over
Government regulations prevent pollsters from using IVR to call cell phones; they can only reach landlines through that technology. But the members of Emerson Polling worried that they were missing an important segment of the population-those who only use cell phones. To ensure the results of their polls best represented voters, they recently began incorporating online polling-similar to that used by YouGov, Survey Monkey, and Survey Sampling International (SSI)-in addition to IVR.
"We found that online polls skewed toward a younger demographic and IVR calling skewed toward an older demographic," Kimball said. "The sample needs to reflect the population. When the data comes back, you want it to be representative." And when the data is more representative of the voters, the polls are more accurate.
Undergraduate and graduate students are at the heart of Emerson College Polling. "I love to see the numbers," said Cole Mootz '19, who served as president of Emerson College Polling in summer 2018. "It's fascinating to check the pulse of the country, whether it's for candidates, ongoing issues, or topics."
Emerson is one of the only college polls in which undergraduate students get hands-on experience in all aspects of the poll-including researching topics, writing questions, sending out the poll to a sample audience, collecting data, analyzing data, and publishing a study. "There is a ton of value in learning by doing," Kimball said.
In fact, polling is a critical part of the Political Communication major at Emerson-both for the experience it gives students, and to attract students to the major. Kimball believes the success of Emerson College Polling is helping to grow the Political Communication program. This year, the major saw a 39 percent increase in applications and a 14 percent increase in enrollment, which is the largest in its history. And if the trend continues, he said, the program will double in size by next year.
Raul Reis, dean of the School of Communication, said Emerson College Polling exemplifies the kind of experiential learning opportunities through which students can apply their classroom learning to real-world applications.
"In many ways, this particular program encapsulates what an Emerson education is all about," he said. "The work they're doing is really important. It has brought new and exciting publicity and attention to the Political Communication program and Communication Studies as a whole."
"It's a great time to be a part of the Polling Society," said Juliet Albin '14, who was involved in Emerson Polling in its early days.
Now, Albin is the chief operating officer at Warchest in Washington, DC, a web-based budgeting application that provides campaign managers with accurate, real-time financial analysis and planning. "I'm proud to be a Political Communication graduate from Emerson. I'm excited to see where the program will go from here," she said.
THE POWER OF THE POLL
During election years, many of Emerson's polling questions center around political candidates. During off years, the questions include more topical subjects, such as solar energy, gay marriage, legalization of marijuana, and border safety. "Polling elections is the sport of polling," Kimball said. "If you conduct surveys or issue polls, there is no way to prove if you're right or wrong. With an election, either the poll is going to be right or it's not. It truly allows us to test our methodology."
Additionally, there are times when a pollster can be right and wrong simultaneously, Kimball said. "You can predict the wrong candidate, but if you're within the margin of error, statistically you are right," he said.
Polling can help political candidates learn what topics are most important to voters, refine talking points, understand which voters they need to reach, and, generally, strategize about their campaign.
Certainly, candidates use the results of polls to help bolster their candidacy or their position on a topic-all the way to the White House. In January 2016, then- U.S. Presidential candidate Donald Trump touted Emerson College and the recent poll that put him ahead of Ted Cruz. And this past July, President Trump again cited the findings of an Emerson poll.
"If we're talking about how powerful [polling] can be, it can change the message of a candidate, the direction of a race, and impact legislation," said Silverman, who also is the director of communications for Massachusetts Representative David Linsky (D-Natick).
At the same time, asking the public to weigh in on a topic is "an essential part of our democracy," said Susannah Marcucci, MA '18, a member of Emerson College Polling.
Silverman added: "If you're choosing to not participate in a poll, you're choosing to not have your voice heard."
Irrespective of personal political beliefs, Emerson College Polling has an important role to play in the 2018 midterm elections and beyond.
"It's surreal that the work we are doing is affecting the national conversation," Mootz said. "Our impact in politics is raising awareness on issues and campaigns."
Marcucci echoed his thoughts. "We are giving a voice to the public, which is so critical. It's an important and growing voice. As we go into the midterm election season, the media, pundits, candidates, and the public will be looking at our polls."
Originally written by Colleen G. Casey '12, MA '18 for the Fall 2018 issue of Expression Magazine. (Photography by Derek Palmer)