Wednesday Q+A With Peter Hart

A conversation with one of the country’s leading Democratic pollsters.

Peter Hart
Adam Wollner
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Adam Wollner
May 17, 2016, 9:30 p.m.

Longtime Democratic pollster Peter Hart has helped lead the NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll, considered the gold standard among media surveys, for nearly three decades. Hart spoke with Adam Wollner about some of the challenges facing the polling industry and the looming battle between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump.

What grade would you give the public polls this cycle?

There is a whole range of public polls, and so I’m reluctant to give a specific grade. But I would tell you, the primary season’s been hard for the polling industry. It was a challenging cycle because the surprising support for Donald Trump stood in sharp relief against overall attitudes towards him. He had a huge and important base with him, but those people who weren’t with him essentially were very much on the other side. And I don’t think the polling industry did as good a job being able to mesh the two different elements.

What lessons can pollsters take away from the primaries as we move into the general election?

We’re going to have to be a lot more sensitive as an industry, both to the movement of people throughout the cycle and never getting complacent in terms of assuming certain constituencies are bound to fall towards the Democrats or the Republicans. I think this may be an ideological fight, but in reality, it’s much more of a personality fight in 2016.

According to a Huffington Post analysis, there were 37 percent more Republican primary polls in 2016 compared to 2012. Overall, there was a 15 percent decrease in those conducted by a live interviewer, which is the method the NBC/WSJ poll uses, while online polls were up by 257 percent. Does that concern you?

The trend is a natural trend. I began in the business when we actually did door-to-door surveys. So there’s been an evolution that went to telephone polling, and now we’re moving to online polling. I have no doubt by the time we get to the 2020 cycle, most of the polling will be done online. There are obviously shortcomings and difficulties, but both cost and speed work very much to the advantage of online pollsters. I still think that the sampling principles used by the telephone polls are going to be superior to those that are done online.

Nearly half of households only have wireless phones. What are some ways pollsters are adapting?

For NBC and The Wall Street Journal, close to 50 percent of all of our interviews are done with people who only have mobile phones. We’ve been increasing that number throughout the cycle, so we feel very comfortable that we’re reaching the full range of voters and not being trapped by only landlines. But at the same time, the whole industry faces a challenge of respondent participation.

A recent Gallup poll found that 21 percent of Democrats said they wouldn’t vote for Clinton in November, which was identical to the percentage of Republicans who said the same about Trump. Do you think Clinton will have trouble uniting the party after a primary that was more contentious than expected?

I think at the end of the day, the party will unite, and unite fairly quickly. Unlike 1980, when the Kennedy-Carter battle came all the way to the convention with major fights and a very divided party, I think this will be much closer to the 2008 model, where the candidates may have differences—they may have to make compromises when it comes to the platform—but at the end of the day, the two contestants will say, “Our bigger problem is with Donald Trump.”

Bernie Sanders has won more than 70 percent of voters under the age of 30 during the primary, according to a Langer Research exit-poll analysis. Do you think Clinton’s problem with younger voters will follow her into the general election?

I think that she’s going to have a challenge with voters under 30. But, one, she’s fighting against Donald Trump, who doesn’t have a natural constituency there. And No. 2, Democrats who voted for Bernie Sanders in the primary also feel positively toward Hillary Clinton, and my guess is when we get to September and October, the overwhelming support from that group will still be with the Democrats.

Clinton and Trump would both be historically unpopular nominees. Is there much they can do to improve their image, or is it too baked in?

I don’t think it’s baked in. I think voters are trying to figure out the answer to a couple of questions: Is Donald Trump reliable enough to be a president, and do I like Hillary Clinton enough to live with her for the next four years? I think likability is important for Hillary Clinton, and I think reliability is important for Donald Trump.

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