The first post-primary poll in next month's Massachusetts Senate special election was released Thursday, but while the survey carried the name of a prominent Boston university, it wasn't conducted by the school or its faculty. The automated poll was conducted by a newly-reinstated student group on campus.
That didn't stop the Emerson College Polling Society survey -- which showed Rep. Edward Markey, D-Mass., with only a modest lead over GOP nominee Gabriel Gomez -- from generating a lot of attention. Gomez's press secretary tweeted out a link to the survey, as did the communications director for the National Republican Senatorial Committee. The D.C.-based conservative news site Daily Caller picked up the poll, but so did the nonpartisan Bloomberg News.
Most university polling outfits -- like Quinnipiac and Marist -- are run by the colleges and lead by faculty. Students volunteer as interviewers or support staff, but most aspects of the surveys, including question design and order, sampling and post-survey weighting and stratification are handled by individuals with advanced academic and professional certifications. For example, Doug Schwartz, director of the Quinnipiac University Polling Institute, has a Ph.D. from the University of Connecticut and is a past president of the American Association for Public Opinion Research's New England chapter. Marist's Lee Miringoff has a Ph.D. from MIT and is the former president of the National Council of Public Polls.
The Emerson College Polling Institute, on the other hand, is headed by president Felix Chen, a junior at the school. "Last year, I took a class, and the professor talked about how to do research, how to do public opinion polling," Chen told Hotline On Call on Friday.
The Emerson students do have a faculty adviser in Republican consultant Spencer Kimball, who said he teaches full-time at the college. "The students have basically learned the skill sets to be able to write, produce and analyze the polling," Kimball said.
He described his role in the latest poll as relatively hands-off. "The students wrote it and analyzed it," said Kimball. "I read over their press release for spelling and grammar."
Chen said the survey was weighted by gender and party-identification (a controversial practice). And he acknowledges that the automated methodology the poll uses undersamples younger voters, something he says is affecting all pollsters.
Kimball said the student group hadn't polled the Massachusetts Senate race until now because Kimball was working for one of Gomez's GOP primary rivals, state Rep. Dan Winslow. And while the students are busy with finals this time of year, some of them -- including Chen and Juliet Albin, who handles media requests for the group -- are sticking around Boston for summer classes. That means observers can expect to see more polls from their group over the special election's month-long sprint to the finish. "We're planning on continuing this through the final election," said Kimball.
"It's going to be really interesting," added Chen.
That will provide an opportunity to compare their surveys with other public polls. A forthcoming automated survey from the Democratic firm Public Policy Polling will show results similar to the Emerson College poll, though at this early juncture, no live-caller polls have been released since the primary.
The group is planning to stay involved in electoral politics even after the Senate race is over -- including in Boston's open-seat mayoral race, for which more than dozen candidates have already declared. "It's going to be a crazy race, so that's probably also something we're going to look into as well," said Albin.
After that, Chen and Albin are planning to study in D.C. during this fall's semester, and both say they're looking for internships related to polling and survey research, either with a consulting firm or a media organization.