Elon Poll: Measuring the mood of the state, one phone call at a time

In October 2000, a group of Elon students gathered in a computer lab on the second floor of Powell Building. Their mission: to conduct the university's first statewide scientific telephone poll.

Though the program did not have a facility of its own–students had to set up and take down the interview stations each time they conducted a poll–it was a complete polling operation and the culmination of much research and preparation by political science professors and university officials.

“We started rather strong from the very beginning,” recalls Sharon Spray, chair of the political science department who headed the project for the first three years.

Eleven years later, the Elon Poll is still going strong. Now housed in Grey Pavilion in a state-of-the-art facility with 40 computer-assisted interview stations, the poll has developed a reputation of being a reliable measure of the political mood of the state. Its results are often used by state and national news media.

“It’s reached a level of prestige among public officials and leaders in the state,” says Hunter Bacot, political science professor and current poll director. “They really look at what we do.”

A unique program

There are many reasons for the poll’s success. One of them, Spray says, is having the full backing of the university, something that from the start has distinguished the Elon Poll from most polling operations.

Sprays says when the poll was launched, there weren’t many other non-biased, non-partisan polls around, which may explain why the poll grabbed the attention of local, state and national media almost immediately.

Not answering to clients or special interests is definitely advantageous, says Bacot, adding that because the poll is fully funded by the university it can remain neutral and independent. He says he pays close attention to the way questions are framed to avoid showing any bias toward a political party or figure. To ensure that, he enters certain parameters in the program used to create the surveys so that words within questions and questions themselves rearrange randomly as they appear in the interviewers’ computer screens.

Another unique characteristic of the poll is that it targets all adults in its sampling, not just registered voters.

“We believe everyone deserves a voice in the process,” Bacot says, not only those who are yelling the loudest. “Democracy is important,” he continues. “We give people a voice that otherwise they wouldn’t have. That’s our reason for being.”

Technological advancements and the popularization of the cell phone have allowed the poll to expand in different ways throughout the years, but something that hasn’t changed is student involvement.

“They make all of our calls,” Bacot says, adding that poll interviewers are better trained than most call center operators, and therefore have a greater chance to complete full interviews.

Students are also involved in constructing the surveys. During a recent exercise, one of Bacot’s public opinion polling classes spent about an hour developing a single question for the poll.

“[The poll] was intentionally built around the classroom, we had that vision from the very beginning,” says Spray, adding that student participation has strengthened throughout the years.

Insider’s Look: The November Election

Bacot says now is an interesting time to follow North Carolina politics.

“North Carolina has been on a trajectory of change,” he says. “We’re resembling our Southern brethren less, we’re becoming more of a mid-Atlantic state. The face of North Carolina is changing.”

He said one election to keep an eye on this November is the U.S. Senate race. Despite predictions for a Republican sweep across the board, Democratic challenger Elaine Marshall is not too far behind Republican incumbent Richard Burr in the polls. If Marshall were to get that victory, Bacot says North Carolina would be one of a few states where women hold three important statewide offices.

Bacot also says this could be the year when Republicans grab control of either the state House or Senate. Whichever party wins, he adds, will be in charge of drawing the congressional districts’ lines in next year’s redistricting, a process that occurs every 10 years.

“We have a lot going on,” Bacot says, adding there’s a lot more at stake during this year’s election than many people realize.

To see the latest Elon Poll results, click here.

An outlet for civic engagement

Some students participate in the poll as part of a class or because it’s a job. Others, like sophomore Joe Adams, whom Bacot jokingly refers to as a “poll junkie,” participate because they like it.

Adams, 19, participated in his first poll in September 2009 as part of a class. The political science major said he thought it was going to be boring. He soon found out otherwise and kept coming back.

“I enjoy it,” he says. “I’m from North Carolina, so the fact that they deal with the state… keeps me up-to-date with what is going on.”

Bacot says the poll serves as a mechanism for civic engagement. In a small and indirect way, he says, the poll allows students to integrate into the larger community not only by learning about issues that are important to people around them but also by talking to people who otherwise they’d have never interacted with.

In a more practical sense, the poll also gives students a set of skills they can use no matter what career they choose.

“If you can get somebody to participate (in the poll),” Bacot says, “you’re probably headed in the right direction.”

Looking ahead

In the years since its inception, the poll has expanded its scope from regional and statewide to including residents from other southern states in its surveys. It has also increased its frequency from four to six per year.

While Bacot says there are a lot of opportunities for expansion, he also knows any new development requires additional resources.

Producing polls is an intensive process, he says, adding that each poll takes somewhere between 114 to 130 hours to produce. That total does not account for the many hours he spends monitoring North Carolina issues, politics, public affairs and policy by reading newspaper articles or browsing blogs and websites. Though for Bacot, the son of a former North Carolina sheriff who has been exposed to politics since an early age, this process has become second nature, it’s still highly demanding.

He says the challenge now is not to continue growing but rather retain its reputation amid increased competition. There are currently eight firms doing statewide polling on a regular basis, a significant increase from 10 years ago.

“If we can sustain that (reputation) through the operating environment,” Bacot says, “then we can think about expanding.”

He says one of his goals when he took the reins of the program in 2005 was to establish the Elon Poll as “the poll of record of North Carolina.”

“I think we’ve done that,” he says.