Since 2002, the Suffolk University Political Research Center in Boston has been a major player in the political arena. But for many casual political watchers across the nation it was this year's New Hampshire primary that caused them to sit up and take notice. "It was a lonely night for me in New Hampshire," recalls Professor David Paleologos, political pollster and Director of the Center. "People were coming up to me and telling me what a shame it was that I didn't get the data right, because we were the only ones not showing Obama winning."
But Obama lost the New Hampshire primary, and Suffolk was the only polling center who got it right. Now, Paleologos says, when it comes to political campaigns, "I am conditioned to expect the unexpected."
Paleologos has been in the polling business over 20 years and has acted as a consultant with nearly every political party in the United States. He's currently in his 6th year at Suffolk. The historic nature of this presidential race sets it apart, he says, as does the accelerated speed of the entire election process. Beginning with the primaries and now continuing with earlier than ever election ads and newspaper endorsements, Paleologos referred to this as "the year of the push-up. Every date, every event has been pushed up earlier than ever before." In response Suffolk, too, has accelerated its reporting.
Paleologos described a typical state poll as two-part, with a state wide poll conducted first followed by numerous separate bellwether polls to areas identified through extensive research as most accurately reflecting the state as a whole. Paleologos believes this cross-checking leads to more accurate results, comparing it to what a patient would expect to gain from multiple diagnostic tests performed by a doctor instead of one. But the need for speed is real and Suffolk is answering that need; the results of their latest Florida poll will be posted less than 24 hours after data was collected and polling completed. That's an extraordinarily tight timeframe, and Paleologos admits the fast pace means sleep ends up expendable. "But even with overnight turnaround, " he says, " your poll can become dated within 24 hours if two or three other polls are released at the same time. This pendulum is moving awfully fast right now."
For the presidential campaign, Paleologos stated up front that Suffolk is not doing national polling, instead focusing attention and resources on what they consider to be the true remaining battleground states: Nevada, Colorado, Florida, Ohio, Virginia, North Carolina, and New Hampshire. This list was longer but Suffolk's polling suggests other swing states have solidified over the last month. The list of remaining battleground states is based on current polling, historical voting data and census-based demographics, including in flow and out flow of residents, new voter registration, shifting demographics, and "as many factors as we can consider," Paleologos says. The current list, he says, is composed of "seven states that truly, truly could go either way."
Virginia is an interesting example; Paleologos noted that Virginia has voted Republican in 11 out of the last 12 presidential elections dating back to the 1960s, yet Obama is polling so strongly that it supersedes the historical data, leading Paleologos to add it to his list of states to watch. Based on Suffolk's current polling information, Paleologos believes if a few states like Ohio and Florida start significantly leaning toward Obama, this election could end up a huge victory for the Senator from Illinois, adding succinctly: "If Florida goes Obama, it's over."
In terms of voters, when asked what this election is going to come down to Paleologos responded with two dynamics. Dynamic #1: race. "For some people this is the first time they've been forced to deal with their own issues involving voting for an African American candidate." As expected, Paleologos sees this dynamic mostly affecting the battleground states of North Carolina and Virginia, and to some extent the panhandle of Florida.
But Paleologos sees a far bigger impact in what he characterizes as Dynamic #2: the state of the economy. That, he says, goes hand in hand with voters' disapproval of the Bush administration. "Right now this is trumping any other reservation anyone may have had, including race, and that looks very encouraging for Obama." Paleologos thinks women ages 35-50 will also have an impact on the outcome, with some not deciding who they're going to vote for until the last minute. But again, this long-time pollster returned to the economy as the real deciding factor. "There are going to be voters who are going to be thinking to themselves as they fill out their ballot, 'I don't have enough money to pay my bills.' Those voters will not separate McCain from Bush."
David Paleologos has learned to expect the unexpected in elections, and readily acknowledges the potential for game-changing events over the next month. But, he concluded, "If people vote their wallet, they're probably going to vote for Obama."