The university connection

scott brown and Elizabeth Warren have been running neck and neck in the polls for months, but when an October survey conducted by the University of Massachusetts Lowell became one of the first to indicate the competitiveness of the Senate race, it made big headlines. The poll was cited in news stories across the country, with the name of the school and its media partner, the Boston Herald, prominently mentioned. “We’ve never gotten so many hits in the history of the university,” says Chancellor Marty Meehan.

UMass Lowell went on to do polls on Joseph P. Kennedy III, who is hoping to fill Barney Frank’s seat in Congress; voter attitudes and priorities in Massachusetts;  public perception of the Occupy Wall Street and Tea Party movements; and the Brown-Warren race for a second time. Each survey generated publicity for the school, which is one reason why so many colleges and universities have jumped into public opinion polling in recent years. But officials at UMass Lowell say their polling operation isn’t just about burnishing the school’s image.

Frank Talty, a professor of political science and director of the new Center for Public Opinion at UMass Lowell, says the polling was primarily conceived with an eye to education and research, and with an emphasis on student involvement. “It’s a research center for our students,” he says. “They’ve really gravitated towards it.”

In “Intro to American Politics” and other classes, students are given the opportunity to discuss actual polling questions before the surveys are conducted, and review the polling data with Talty afterwards. They look at why questions are relevant and how to formulate them for maximum clarity. Next semester, Talty says, students will be involved in the initial tabulation and analysis of the data as well. The center has also held two public forums and one political debate among the potential Democratic candidates for the US Senate, which have been organized and moderated in large part by students. “This center adds a significant experiential learning opportunity,” says UMass Lowell Provost Ahmed Abdelal.

Talty says university officials had already been considering the creation of a public opinion center when the Herald approached them last summer. He says the relationship between the school and the tabloid is mutually beneficial. The university gets a guaranteed media outlet for the polls and the Herald receives the polling results before other news organizations at no cost. During the debate among Democratic contenders for Brown’s Senate seat, students blogged about the event for the Herald. Herald staff also guided students through the process of organizing and executing the debate, and the paper has provided internship opportunities for students as well. (The Herald declined to comment for this story.

University polling outfits have become increasingly prevalent over the past few decades, mirroring the general rise in popularity of polling and survey research in the 20th century. Public opinion polling, in one form or another, has been around for ages; but it really took off in the 1930s, with the rapid spread of telecommunications networks and the rise of scientific survey research methods. In 1936, George Gallup and a handful of other pollsters accurately predicted Franklin Roosevelt’s presidential victory, prompting a surge in private polling operations.

Universities were also beginning to embrace survey research at about the same time. The National Opinion Research Center, now located at the Univ­er­sity of Chicago, was conceived at the University of Denver in 1941.The University of Michigan’s Survey Research Center was founded in 1946. But these institutions focused exclusively on social science research, leaving the media-oriented polls to the private canvassers.

It was in the early 1970s that some public university-based survey research institutes, such as the Eagleton Center for Public Interest Polling at Rutgers University, began conducting political polls in addition to survey research. According to Cliff Zukin, a professor of public policy and political science at Rutgers, the university polls tended to survey citizens in their home states in order to build an understanding of election and policy issues. More recently, he says, private schools, such as Marist College, in Poughkeepsie, New York, and Quinnipiac University in Connecticut, have gained national visibility with their polling.

“Schools like Quinnipiac and Marist do them as loss leaders to get institutional visibility, and generally just focus on elections, even in states that have nothing to do with where they are located,” Zukin says.

By the late 1970s and early 1980s, other state schools, such as the Univ­ersities of New Hampshire, Cincinnati, and Kentucky, were conducting horserace political polls as well. “The great majority of survey centers were not started with the sole, or even major, intention of doing this kind of work,” says Andrew Smith, professor of political science and current director of The Survey Center at UNH. “Rather, it seems to have developed organically because they had the capacity and infrastructure, and there was a media organization that approached them.”

Founded in 1976, The Survey Center at UNH conducts 40 to 50 survey research projects each year for faculty, government bodies, private businesses, and nonprofit organizations. It also produces election polls on the New Hampshire primary with WMUR-TV and does survey work for the Boston Globe on a regular basis. Most of the UNH data collection and analysis is performed in-house, by a staff that is two-thirds students who are paid for their work.

In Massachusetts, the Center for Policy Analysis, established at UMass Dartmouth in 1992, performs a similar mix of survey research, program and policy evaluation, and media-oriented polling as UNH. The Suffolk University Political Research Center has been conducting polls since 2002, and UMass Amherst has produced a handful of political polls in the past few years as well.

Independent think tanks are getting into polling as well. CommonWealth’s publisher, the nonprofit organization MassINC, helped launch the for-profit MassINC Polling Group in 2010, which conducts polls for WBUR and other clients.

UMass Lowell’s Center for Public Opinion is the school’s second foray into the field. An earlier polling operation at the university was run by Louis DiNatale, a researcher and pollster who was let go after he ran afoul of the state Ethics Commission for freelancing as a private political consultant on the side.

According to Christine Gillette, a UMass Lowell spokeswoman, DiNatale’s polling operation had no connection to students or faculty. The center operated on a $500,000 annual budget, $350,000 of which paid the salaries of DiNatale and two other staff members.

In 2007, the Ethics Commission investigated DiNatale for conducting a private political poll for convenience store magnate Christy Mihos in 2005. A potential gubernatorial candidate at the time, Mihos hired DiNatale to survey Republican voters about political issues and attitudes. The poll included many questions about Mihos as a candidate. Around the same time, DiNatale also conducted a university poll of registered voters of all political affiliations, which included questions about Mihos as a candidate.

The commission concluded that, as a state employee, DiNatale had violated the state’s conflict of interest law by conducting a university poll with questions pertaining to a politician while simultaneously entering into a private contract with that same politician. DiNatale only received a public reprimand from the commission. But in 2008, under the direction of Meehan, the school’s new chancellor, the polling center was dissolved and its entire staff let go.

The new polling center was designed with this cautionary tale in mind. Officials say its bankroll comes not from the state, but from the $60 million pool of foundation and private research funding raised by UMass Lowell annually. University faculty who work at the center do so for no additional pay, and the actual polls are designed, conducted, and analyzed with the help of Mike Mokrzycki, an independent survey expert who formerly worked as the head of polling for the Associated Press.

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Not only is there a focus on student involvement, but some polling topics have been conceived with an eye to faculty research as well. (The poll concerning public attitudes about the Occupy Wall Street and Tea Party movements is relevant to Talty’s academic interest in how ideology shapes voter behavior.) “It’s not worth the investment if it’s just for the PR,” says Meehan.

As if to confirm that the new center’s priorities lie firmly with the university’s students, Talty says the center  has shut down for summer vacation, even as the political races are heating up. “We have not finalized plans for the next academic year, but we expect to have more polls, debates, and forums when students return to campus in the fall,” he says.