Polling Institute sees successes, learns to deal with press

When Rich Clark began working at Castleton on Aug. 1, 2011 as associate professor of political science and director of the Castleton Polling Institute, he was required to start from scratch.

He had plans for the Institute, but had to find a suitable location on campus, acquire the necessary equipment and phones and seek out volunteers and clients to conduct the polls before any progress could be made. Having completed all of that, the Polling Institute conducted its first poll in February.

Since then, Castleton’s Polling Institute has successfully polled people on numerous occasions. Although the political polls receive the most press attention, there have been polls done that studied everything from policies in Georgia to Hurricane Irene recovery.

The Polling Institute has been recognized on a national level. Chris Matthews highlighted the Institute in his show, “Hardball” and the New York Times now uses the results from the polls as their sole source for Vermont numbers on the Five Thirty Eight blog.

Although the Institute has come a long way from it’s beginning just over a year ago today, Clark has learned that understanding how to work with the press is not always easy. In August 2012, a misinterpretation of the results of a poll by the press brought less positive attention to the Institute. The results from the survey that polled registered Vermont voters on the Democratic primary race for the Attorney General position showed that 44 percent would vote for William Sorrell, 20 percent for T.J. Donovan and 38 percent were undecided. There was a 7 percent margin of error.

On primary day though, Sorrell won, but by a much slimmer margin – about 700 votes.

The Press called Clark out on the results, stating that the polling institute was wrong because they do not use a likely voter model. Clark was featured on the National Public Radio-Vermont Edition to explain the process and results of the poll.

“We were up front about the fact that we only poll registered voters in Vermont,” Clark said.  “The number of registered voters will change as the election approaches. We weren’t hiding anything.” 

Clark posted the results on the board during one his classes and asked his students who they thought would win the election based on the information. The majority looked at the numbers and chose Sorrell because 44 percent was the largest number.  After a bit of discussion, he told the class it was clear that “you don’t know.”

Considering the 7 percent margin of error and the fact that such a large number of voters were undecided, either candidate could still have a chance of winning based on the results.

The Polling Institute continues to conduct polls and learn from their prior experiences, Clark said. Currently, there are polls being conducted to determine male attitudes and perceptions on issues around domestic and sexual violence. The results will be shared with the Government task force on Domestic and Sexual violence and will be used as a baseline and needs analysis to see what their training should focus on, Clark said.

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