The next Democratic presidential debate is Thursday. And, while it’s intuitive to feel veteran New Jersey pollster Patrick Murray will have his team at the ready to record the thoughts of the American public as it happens, you’d be wrong to think that way.
Murray, in fact, said his team won’t poll the public until days later.
“Not until the Monday after,” he told ROI-NJ. “At least.”
The reason is simple.
“The vast majority of voters are not going to watch the debate directly,” he said. “They’re going to glean what they know of the debate on the media coverage of the debate. And that’s much more important than the actual debates.
“So, you can sit a bunch of people down and have them watch and get their reaction, but that doesn’t mean that’s going to be their reaction — their reaction is going to be based on what’s the media narrative coming out of the debate? That’s what’s going to drive the electorate.
“That’s why I wait at least a couple of days for it to sink into the public and then to see what the real reaction is going to be.”
This was one of a number of interesting tidbits gleaned from a recent conversation with Murray, who has been involved in polling for more than 25 years and has served as the director of the Polling Institute at Monmouth University since 2005.
Some of the others: There is a large segment of silent Donald Trump supporters, potentially even bigger than there was in 2016. New Jersey’s U.S. Sen. Cory Booker is a second-tier candidate for the Democratic nomination, but one still very much in play due to the uniqueness of the race. And it’s really hard to get people to pick up the phone. A survey of 500 people requires about 20,000 calls.
“But, when they pick up, we get the interview,” Murray said. “And the Pew Research Center, which has been at the cutting edge of these changes, found that, despite the fact that we were getting fewer response rate, the people who agreed to talk to us were representative of the larger population.”
Here’s some more of the conversation:
ROI-NJ: Tell me more about the difficulty of getting people to answer the phone — and how that process has changed over the years.
Patrick Murray: When I started in this business 25 years ago, we would have anywhere from 75% to 85% of the people you call pick up the phone. Now, it’s down to less than 10%. And it’s same type of response rate, whether we’re calling a cell phone or on the landline.
There is one interesting aspect of this. On a typical landline, you’re more likely to get a woman to pick up the phone than a man. But when you call a cell phone, you will be much more likely to get a man to answer than a woman.
ROI: What do attribute the lack of response to?
PM: It’s just a change in culture and technology. Your phone is programed with people that you know. When I started 25 years ago, you were on the cutting edge if you had the answering machine. So, if the phone rang, you picked it up, because it was likely to be somebody that you knew and then you wanted to talk to him. And it was only occasionally a sales call or a call from somebody like me.
Now, you have ramped up the number of spam calls that are coming out there, and people have the ability to identify who’s calling them as soon as the phone rings. To get a sample of 500 people, you now need to make about 20,000 calls.
ROI: Who is making those calls? Most people assume a poll at a college is manned with college students looking to make a few extra bucks.
PM: At Monmouth, we have an interviewing firm that we work with closely that does it. It is such a labor-intensive operation to do live interviewer telephone calling that you want to make sure that it’s done professionally.
ROI: The polling process came into question during 2016, when Trump won despite trailing in almost every poll. Talk about that?
PM: There’s a number of issues. When we’re doing election polling, we’re not doing a standard polling operation, which is, ‘This is what the population looks like and we’ll go and sample it.’ We’re doing an operation that says, ‘We don’t know what the population is going to look like on election day, so we’re going to make our best estimate what it will look like and then sample that.’ And, so, that’s kind of a violation of probability polling.
And we have so many close elections that the normal variability that is acceptable and built into polling becomes a challenge. When you are looking at the presidential job approval rating, is it 52% or 56%. It doesn’t really matter. It’s within the margin of error.
But, if you have an election where you’re wondering if one candidate is ahead by two points or the other candidate is ahead by two points, that margin matters. It changes the dynamic of how the story is told in the media. And even though it’s only a four-point difference, which under normal circumstances would be considered not much of a difference, a four-point difference could dramatically change the way the story of the poll is told.
Election polling is the kind of polling that violates almost all the principles of sampling that we have in terms of probability polling because we don’t know who is actually in the population until after election day happens and we know who voted.
ROI: Aren’t you also unsure of who is telling the truth? Some people feel there is a segment of silent Trump voters who won’t admit they are Trump supporters. Does your sampling agree with that?
PM: I have been turning up anecdotal evidence in my travels around the country that they do exist and potentially exist in larger numbers than we saw in 2016. And I’ll qualify that by saying, one of the things that makes me a little different than a standard public pollster, is that I do a lot of what we call qualitative research, where you actually talk with voters one-on-one and listen to what they have to say. It informs what you do in polling and makes your polling better because you know that you’re talking about issues and asking questions in ways that people actually talk about them.
One of the things that I’ve found in the time that I’ve spent recently in Iowa and New Hampshire is that there are a lot of Trump voters out there who are not particularly happy with the president’s behavior, but will vote for him in 2020. They’ll say that they don’t talk about this in their everyday lives because of the toxicity of the political climate. And they may work in industries where they are in the minority being a Trump supporter, but they’re there. It’s a real phenomenon. We just don’t have good way to measure it.
In the end, you have to estimate how many of those folks are out there. In 2016, my estimate based on examining the polls that we did in key states like Pennsylvania, was that there was probably about one or two percentage points that were missed because of these silent Trump voters. And we could see something similar to that in these key states in 2020.
ROI: Let’s talk about 2020. The Democrats will have 10 candidates in that next debate. And other candidates who are still running despite not making the debate stage. How is that impacting the process?
PM: One thing I’ve heard from voters that I’ve talked to — and it’s a universal complaint no matter who they were supporting or whether they were supporting anyone at all — is that there are too many candidates. And because there are too many candidates, they can’t focus on them. That’s why you’ve had a race so far that’s been driven by a national narrative and candidates with name recognition riding to the top. Voters aren’t paying close attention, they don’t have the time to pay close attention, it’s too crowded to pay close attention. And, therefore, the default position is a well-known candidate.
What I think we’ll start seeing as we get past Labor Day and the field starts to winnow down is voters taking a much closer look at these candidates and the potential for some of these candidates who have been kind of hanging on in the second or third tier of potentially rising. So, this is their make or break time to see if they can do that.
ROI: That would include Booker, yes?
PM: Yes. Right now, he’s in the second tier. He’s in the lower end of the second tier in these early states. But we’ve seen some indications that he has the potential to rise. Once these voters say, ‘OK, now I can just focus on a few candidates,’ it’s possible for Booker to start making leaps.
That’s why I think, more than the national polls, the early state polls in Iowa and New Hampshire and Nevada and South Carolina are more indicative of the direction of this race.
ROI: Last question. What are the chances 2020 will be like 2016? That is, one that the polls struggle to accurately predict.
PM: The 2016 election was such a unique situation and that was because we’ve never had a situation where both major party candidates were disliked by the majority of the electorate. And we’re probably going to have that regardless of who the Democratic nominee is this time around, because of how polarized we are. So, that’s a lesson that we’ve learned. And that that changes the dynamic.
One of the things that became clear is that when you have that kind of situation, those who are anti-establishment are much more energized than those who are pro-establishment to go out and vote. And it’s enough to change the margins by a point or two.
The question for me, looking ahead, is who is more of the candidate of change. Donald Trump could still be the candidate of change, potentially, of 2016, or there could be somebody who’s radically different on the Democratic side who could change that calculation.