On Saturday, March 16, students in the Gerald R. Ford Institute for Leadership in Public Policy and Service received an email from Ford director Patrick McLean detailing “unprecedented student opportunities.”
Peter Hart, dubbed as the “dean” of modern pollsters by journalist Bob Schieffer, would spend the week of March 18 on campus speaking to students on creating surveys to gather public opinion.
“Hart has been, quite simply, one of the best scholars of public opinion in the United States for the last 50 years,” said McLean in his promotional email. “If there were a Nobel Prize for public opinion research, Peter would be a candidate,” he continued later.
Hart founded Hart Research, a strategic and public opinion firm, in 1971 and has led it since. Its site states he’s helped 55 U.S. Senators, 40 governors and multiple Democratic presidential candidates through public opinion research. He has also helped non-profit organizations like UNICEF and companies like Coca-Cola.
The pollster has also created and ran NBC News’ and the Wall Street Journal’s polls since 1989.
His work with NBC and the Wall Street Journal was what led him to Albion to talk with students on public opinions, survey design and interpretation.
While at both news companies, he worked alongside Robert Teeter, a 1961 Albion College graduate. Hart worked as the Democratic pollster, Teeter as the Republican. Hart chose to spend the week at Albion in honor of his peer, who died in 2004.
“It’s a way to pay homage,” he said.
Hart is visiting through the Woodrow Wilson Fellowship, funded by the Council of Independent Colleges. Prospective institutions can apply to have one of dozens of Fellows visit their students for the week for class lectures, keynote speeches, personal meetings and forums.
It is Hart’s first time visiting the campus but not his first time as a Woodrow Wilson Fellow. He said meeting Fellows is valuable for students because it places guest lecturers past the podium and the stage and into more personal teaching, which can challenge students.
“Like all small colleges, all students here expect to be in a dialogue,” he said. “They don’t expect to just be lectured to. So they were very open and ready to engage.”
Being a Fellow challenges Hart, too. Working closely with students adds new dimensions to his thinking.
On elections and polling
On Tuesday, March 19, Hart gave a public lecture titled “The Future of Polling in the 2020 Election” to a group of students, staff and community members in the Ludington Center.
Hart continuously emphasized the macro trends of elections rather than the micro when considering how the 2020 presidential election might turn.
“When you look at an election, don’t get caught up in all the little minutia,” he said. “Step back and think of it as — well, I don’t know — a Monet painting, where you look in the big way.”
Hart also said to think of individual polls as single moments in time that, when strung together, can give an indication of where things may head.
A failure to analyze that string was what surprised so many pollsters as the 2016 general presidential election played out. The best pollsters were right, — Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton did win the popular vote as their polls predicted — but the pollsters failed to see the trend that led Trump to win the election through the electoral college.
In the presentation, Hart pulled up two graphs whose points were polls of favorability of then-candidates Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump. As the polls were conducted closer and closer to the election date, Clinton’s favorability went down while Trump’s went up.
Among the trends and predictions toward the 2020 election, Hart said to think of the three major voting blocks — independents, Democrats and Republicans — as distinct groups. Democrats need a strong turnout. Republicans need a poor Democratic turnout. Independents need to be swayed by one of the major parties.
Hart also noted that polls should not only ask participants how they feel about the candidates they oppose but ask how they view party’s platform. An opposition to one political party’s candidate does not necessarily equate to preference for another political party.
Framing survey questions correctly is what Hart and his firm seek to do. He shared some of these insights with students in forums and classes.
For student groups interested in creating surveys, Hart shared the following tips: create a sample that represents all people of a community, keep the survey short, make sure questions don’t mislead, check for bias in questions and use open-ended questions.
“It is all about listening to people,” he said.