This election season, Castleton University professor Rich Clark was featured on multiple news agencies around the state for his polling expertise.
And for him, it was no surprise.
“We don’t have polling in Vermont,” he said. “I was in Georgia, and I was running a poll called the Peach State Poll out of University of Georgia, which is the flagship institute.”
But that wasn’t the only poll in the state of Georgia. In addition to having another one at the university, there were also polls at both Georgia State University and Kennesaw State University.
“That’s just the academic pollsters,” he said, “not to mention all the other independent pollsters working in Georgia. There’s a lot of competition, a lot of different polls. Coming to Vermont, there’s no polling being done at all.”
University of Vermont does do a regular poll, Clark said, called the Vermonter poll – but he said they’re not a polling institute.
“It was what they call an omnibus poll, where they load it with all sorts of questions,” he said. “Nobody inside Vermont, who cared about Vermont, who was interested in Vermont alone, was doing any sort of regular public opinion research in the state.”
When former president Dave Wolk started the Polling Institute at Castleton, Clark said, his vision was to make Castleton that premier place. And though the Polling Institute, and the phone center used to collect data, was shut down in June of this year for budget reasons, Clark says he’s still polling, although he now uses a phone center out of New Jersey to make the calls.
“I’m doing it as Rich Clark now,” he said. “It’s not the Castleton Polling Institute polling anymore.”
Castleton University President Karen Scolforo said the idea of a polling institute at Castleton University is not dead.
“Just this past week, we met to discuss a revival of a larger polling entity at Castleton University,” she said. “I am honored to work with Clark, and to see our students benefit from his wealth of knowledge and expertise.”
As for the results of the 2018 midterm elections, Clark was not surprised.
“My polls were pretty dead on,” he said. “The polls aren’t supposed to be a prediction, but they are supposed to be a reflection of the public. Our poll reflected the vote outcome very closely across all races.”
And though the 2018 midterm election polls were close to the results for this election, Clark says that polls are not meant to be precise.
“Polling is more like a chainsaw than a scalpel,” he said. “You don’t get a fine estimate.”
According to Clark, President Donald Trump won the presidency two years ago by 77,000 votes – less than .001 percent.
“No poll is precise enough to have picked that up,” he said.
Over the years, as technology has changed, in some ways it has made polling easier, Clark said. Polling institutes now have auto dialers and computer assisted interviewing. But in others, Clark said, it made polling much harder.
“There was a time in the 1970s when you called a household, people would answer,” he said. “There was no call blocking, there was no answering machines, there was no screening, there was no number identification. Everybody would answer, and people were polite. They weren’t getting called by telemarketers nine times a day, and so they were ready to respond to surveys.”
At that time, response rates were high, Clark said, about 50 percent, and people were more willing to share their views.
According to Castleton alum Evan Antal, who was a political science major, Clark’s love of statistical analysis was evident through his classes.
“Nothing makes Dr. Clark smile more than failing to reject the null hypothesis, and nothing makes him more upset than a 3D pie chart,” he said. “I was really excited to hear him sharing his expertise when I turned on NPR the other day on my way home!”
Clark was also featured on WCAX in Burlingon.
Though national politics dominates the scene during election season, Clark says it’s important for voters to keep an eye on state politics.
“National politics are taking all the oxygen out of the room,” he said. “Everything’s about what’s happening in Washington, D.C. that we forget that the laws that affect us most are made at the state level.”
For voters to stay mindful, Clark said they need to look at what is happening at local schools, the town, and the state, and the issues confronting them.
“These are the things that, in the long run, are going to affect them more on a day to day basis than what is happening in Washington, DC,” he said.