Wednesday Q+A With Peter Hart

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

Peter Hart
Adam Wollner
Add to Briefcase
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.

What We're Following See More »
Carrier Moving 600 Jobs to Mexico
2 hours ago
Jets Owner Woody Johnson Nominated as Ambassador to UK
2 hours ago
Sens. Paul, Cruz, Johnson and Lee Oppose Senate Health Care Bill
19 hours ago

The four Senators released a joint statement, saying in part, "There are provisions in this draft that repreesnt an improvement to our current health care system, but it does not appear this draft as written will accomplish the most important promise we made to Americans: to repeal Obamacare and lower their health care costs."

No Comey Tapes
20 hours ago

Trump tweeted Thursday afternoon, "With all of the recently reported electronic surveillance, intercepts, unmasking and illegal leaking of information, I have no idea whether there are "tapes" or recordings of my conversations with James Comey, but I did not make, and do not have, any such recordings."

Senate Healthcare Bill In Trouble?
21 hours ago

Welcome to National Journal!

You are currently accessing National Journal from IP access. Please login to access this feature. If you have any questions, please contact your Dedicated Advisor.