Doug Schwartz ’88 is polling America and predicting elections

Doug Schwartz '88
Doug Schwartz '88

It’s election season and there is no shortage of political chatter thrown at eligible voters — from the candidates, from the media, from that one uncle on Facebook.

It’s hard to avoid, and even harder to avoid its influence. But Doug Schwartz ’88 has made a living by rising above the rhetoric, leading the Quinnipiac University Polling Institute to national prominence for its accuracy and unique strategies of providing crucial information on public opinion.

“This is our busiest time of the year and when we have the most pressure,” says Schwartz. “People ask, ‘Did they get it right? Were they even close?’”

As director of the Quinnipiac poll since 1991, Schwartz is responsible for the poll’s methodology and all aspects of the survey process. Schwartz has also been key in building the poll’s reputation, shifting the institute from a regional outpost to a national authority.

To do that, Schwartz said, the poll has had to set itself apart from competitors. While most polls focus on one state or a national perspective, the Quinnipiac poll surveys nine different states and New York City, in addition to a national poll. It is the only national poll that surveys regularly in multiple states, gathering crucial information on both elections and public policy.

This year, Schwartz says the focus has been on nine states, where there are seven races for governor and four races for U.S. Senate seats. Four of the states polled — Florida, Connecticut, Iowa and Colorado — are drawing major national attention, with Iowa and Colorado holding the key to a possible Republican majority in the Senate.

With 10 full-time employees and an army of over 100 interviewers — including many Quinnipiac University students — the poll surveys sample sizes of more than 1,000 registered voters. What was once a pencil-and-paper operation is now completely digital, with computers randomly generating both home and cellular phone numbers to reach the populace.

“We’ve had to bring in the cell numbers because many of the youngest voters aren’t using landlines anymore. Our numbers would be off. Part of striving for accuracy is nailing down every key demographic,” said Schwartz.

The poll’s accuracy hasn’t gone unnoticed. The Quinnipiac poll is regularly within just a few percentage points of state and national races; in both 2008 and 2012, the poll was within three points of predicting the presidential race in the key swing states of Florida, Virginia and Ohio. In 2010, statistics guru Nate Silver praised the Quinnipiac poll for its reliable results.

“We want to get it right. We do our job responsibly because our reputation is on the line,” said Schwartz.

Schwartz sees the poll as a public service, helping the media, the public and elected officials understand how voters feel about issues. He also says the poll can indirectly affect elections, as the results of surveys can have an impact on media coverage and fundraising efforts for candidates or policy issues.

It was an early interest in politics that drew Schwartz to polling. He majored in government at the College, and then headed to the University of Connecticut to pursue a master’s in political science. While there, he took an opportunity to join the school’s survey research program and found his niche.

Schwartz began his professional career as a survey associate with the CBS News election and survey unit in the late 80s, around the same time the Quinnipiac poll was founded. He went on to pursue a Ph.D. in political science from the University of Connecticut, and at the same time was hired to direct the Quinnipiac poll, which then had only a handful of interviewers with phones and polled only in Connecticut.

Schwartz credits his passion for politics and public policy to William Cibes, a former government professor at the College. Cibes served in the administration of former Connecticut governor Lowell Weicker; coincidentally, Schwartz interned in Weicker’s Washington, D.C., office during his junior year.

“When it comes down it, what sets Connecticut College apart are the professors. They make all the difference,” says Schwartz.

November 3, 2014