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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