_After the national political contests were decided last week, pre-election pollsters were put to the test. And, by one measure, Raleigh-based Public Policy Polling came out close to the top.
Costas Panagopoulos, professor at Fordham University, released an initial report Wednesday, which rated the left-leaning firm’s polls as the most accurate in the country. The ranking has since been changed to third, as more official results rolled in.
The Daily Tar Heel sat down with Tom Jensen, UNC alumnus and director of Public Policy Polling, to talk about life as a pollster, the polling process and his love of UNC baseball._
Daily Tar Heel: Can you walk me through the typical day for a pollster?
Tom Jensen: So, kind of an average day: I would come in and have two or three polls that finished the previous night. When you do polls, especially nowadays, the response rates on polls aren’t very high, and the people who respond to polls aren’t necessarily reflective of the population as a whole.
So, probably the most important thing I do is take that raw data that’s kind of messy and weight it to something that really reflects the electorate and who is going to vote. That is usually the first sort of thing I do in the day — the math.
If you come into my office, my desk is completely full with pieces of scrap paper full of math. Our IT guys come in and are like, “Oh my god, you’re the Rain Man.”
DTH: When we are talking about calculating polls, and weighting them, what are you really doing?
TJ: I think the easiest example is with gender. On average, if we do a poll, 60 percent of the respondents are going to be women and 40 percent of the respondents are going to be men.
What we’ll do is do a statistical formula that will make it so that in the final results, the women actually only account for 54 percent, for example, and the men will only account for 46 percent. The only three things we weight for are gender, race and age.
There’s a debate within polling circles as to whether you should weight for party or not. We just stuck to our guns and didn’t weight for party. And I think the accuracy of our final polls sort of bore that out.
DTH: It appears that, while polling is statistical, some of it is gut feeling. Is that true?
TJ: Absolutely. In an era where people’s time is getting more and more precious, and there’s sort of more and more ADD, people just aren’t answering polls the way they used to. And that puts pollsters in a situation where it is getting to a point where the art side of polling is as important as the scientific side of polling.
A lot of what is going to determine whether polls are accurate from now on is how accurate pollsters assumptions are about things like, what the demography of the electorate is going to be, particularly by race.
DTH: How have North Carolina demographics shifted?
TJ: The biggest thing is the change in racial demographics. Even 10 years ago, about 80 percent of the electorate in North Carolina was white. Now it’s 70 percent. It’s not necessarily that our African-American population has increased, but certainly African-American voter participation has increased.
I know that in 2004, only 18 percent of the electorate in North Carolina was black. This year, it was 23 percent. We’ve seen a big increase on that front.
The Hispanic vote doubled from 2008 to 2012; it will probably double again from 2012 to 2016. It’s still only 2 percent of the vote in the state, but it will be larger and larger for the rest of your and my lifetimes.
We have a situation in North Carolina where the white vote still goes about 2-to-1 Republican — that hasn’t changed all that much — but the vote from these non-white voters goes about 80-20 Democratic.
I think North Carolina is now permanently going to be on the swing state list for president.
DTH: You told me you were going to a UNC game today. What is your favorite sport to attend?
TJ: I am actually sort of the unofficial head cheerleader for the UNC baseball team. You could call up Coach (Mike) Fox and he’d tell you all day about Tom the super fan.
I sort of feel like PPP won the polling national championship this week, but there is one thing that can make me happier than that, and that is for UNC baseball to finally win the College World Series — and it could be this year.
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