Poll position: Monmouth’s Murray talks about techniques … not to mention caller ID, ‘fake news’ label

By Brett Johnson
Monmouth | Aug 9, 2019 at 4:00 am
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The Monmouth University Polling Institute’s director since its 2005 founding, Patrick Murray, has spent several decades being the one who asks all the questions.

Whether it’s about who the frontrunner is right now in the 2020 presidential campaign, or who the next New Jersey governor might be … his organization queries people about all the important issues of the day, political or otherwise. 

Occasionally, however, Murray will respond to a few questions of his own. 

Is monitoring public opinion a difficult process today? 

That’s not one he’d have to do a survey on. For him, the answer is clear: definitely.

“Once people started moving to cell phones and getting caller ID, they stopped picking up their phone unless it was someone they wanted to talk to,” Murray said. “When I started out, people didn’t have caller ID. If their phone rang, they picked it up. And if you said you were calling from a university for a poll, a vast majority of people would do it when asked. It was very easy.”

As response rates to polls have plummeted, a trend which Murray said has been especially apparent over the past few years, organizations have to spend more money dialing telephones to track public opinion.

And that leads to further issues, according to Murray, who explained that the polls with lower response rates have ceased to reliably match demographics of the general population.

“Response rates gone down so much that our samples tend to require more modeling to get them into line with known population figures,” he said. “Now, for example, if you have fewer responses from Latinos, you have to do more to make sure that demographic is contributing a proper amount to a poll.”

Monmouth University’s polling center is now branching into online polling itself, and also exploring the addition of text messaging to its survey capabilities.

The pollsters already capturing web respondents are often relying on a sampling technique that calls on a panel of people with a wide variety of demographic characteristics who are ready and willing to participate in multiple polls, according to Murray.

“And that’s similar to how George Gallup started out with his sampling technique for polling in the 1930s,” he said. “So, in some ways, we’ve come full circle.”

Throughout the years, Monmouth University Polling Institute — run by a handful of full-time staffers and students at the school — has been lauded for its accuracy, earning the highest ratings from opinion poll analysis website FiveThirtyEight.

But a trying aspect of this work today is that everybody’s a critic … and a pollster, too.

Murray said the backlash against what people perceive to be dubious information — or “fake news” — has come to bear on his profession.

“If you had an issue where 60% agreed on something and 40% disagreed, there’s bound to be someone from that 40% that says, ‘You didn’t poll me; your numbers are wrong because everybody I know agrees with me and nobody agrees with the other side,’” he said. 

And 40% of respondents in a poll can still account for a lot of people, he added. In a state such as New Jersey, it can represent close to 4 million people. 

“So, you can easily find a bunch of people in that sizable minority that agree with you — and that makes sense, because why would you surround yourself with people you don’t share common values with?” Murray said. “The issue is, more than 5 million people feel a different way.”

This sort of reaction to polls has been a thorn in the side of pollsters for about as long as polls have existed. And high-profile pollsters such as Murray face criticism from the powerful just as often as the general population, such as when former Gov. Chris Christie knocked Murray after a poll showed him losing ground during his presidential run.

But Murray believes this sentiment has intensified in the past few years, occurring alongside an increase in the organization’s own relevance in the polling world as it moved from covering just New Jersey elections and issues to national concerns.

“People just used to make these complaints, then move on,” he said. “Now they add that: ‘Because I’m in the minority of what your poll says, your poll must be fake. The numbers must’ve been manipulated — made up for some nefarious reason.’”

It’s just another of the problems pollsters face today, Murray said. 

But is he discouraged by all this?

On that question, Murray makes it clear, it’s a “strongly disagree.”

Conversation Starter

Reach Patrick Murray of the Monmouth University Polling Institute at: pdmurray@monmouth.edu or 732-263-5858.