Pollster John Zogby Shares Insight
Pollsters—who have proliferated with every presidential election—are funny people. It turns people just don’t understand them, or rather what they do.
We hadn’t talked with Pollster John Zogby, then of John Zogby International, since the last presidential election campaign in 2008, right after the New Hampshire primary which produced some interesting results then.
Back then we caught up with him on his cell phone. He was enroute—we forget to where— and he was on a train.
Four years later, after some digging around on the net, we found him again last Wednesday— heading toward an airport. We finally talked last Friday—and indicative of what’s been going on the polling arena, things had changed in the interim.
“Yes, last night (Thursday, October 26), I thought I detected a little bit of a surge towards Obama, but by the time I got back, we saw a dead heat in Virginia—48/48.”
That was an indication of how tight this election has become—depending on the pollster and polls you look at, there are national deadlocks among likely and/or general voters, and many but not all of the battleground states are heading towards: you guessed, it deadlocks, depending on what polls you read, study or believe.
Of course, for Zogby, since we talked to him last in 2008, there have been a lot of changes, too. Back then, he was (and continues to be) one of the most respect pollsters in the country. He had gained some fame back in the 1990s, after founding his firm Zogby International in 1984, after one of his polls showed that New York State Governor Mario Cuomo would lose to then president George. H.W. Bush in his home state. Later, in an astonishing feat giving the outcome, he polled ahead of the result the final numbers of the 2000 presidential election within a tenth of the actual result.
In 2008, just to show the vitality of things even then, Hilary Clinton—after showing what was detected to be some teary emotion— had won the New Hampshire Primary stalling Barack Obama’s impending victory parade. Zogby’s rolling polling had apparently missed that development. Back then, he said “Look, we got everything else right—we got McCain, we had Obama’s almost exact numbers, but we had stopped before the effects of the “moment”.”
Since then, after years of heading Zogby International, he sold his controlling shares to the Brazilian company IBOPE. “That was a big thing, sure,” he said. But Zogby is still a major force in polling—the recent Virginia tie for instance was part of polling he is doing for and in conjunction with the Washington Times. In addition, he polls with Forbes Magazine and others, and most important of all, he’s joined JZ Analytics, a Polling Firm run by his son, Jonathan, in the role of Senior Adviser.
“Nope, I haven’t retired,” Zogby, 63, said. “But working with my son, that’s very, very nice, sure, that’s very special, of course it is. It’s a very major thing.”
Other things have changed, too, not so much for him, as in the world of polls and pollsters. “Sure, sure, there’s more of them, the tools have changed, and the techniques have changed—the robo calls, for instance are still there, but that’s a very difficult thing to bring off in depth when you have so many people using cell phones, it’s harder to get the numbers.”
Zogby did not agree, and he did not agree then that voters are heavily influenced by polls. “I honestly can’t say that I have ever met anybody that voted because of a poll.
“What I do believe is the media makes more use of polls now than they did four years ago,” he said. “And they create story lines from polls, they look at certain things and emphasize them, sometimes even if they’re not important, or just to frame their stories And now, today, in the debates for instance. There is no question that Obama’s debate performance in the first one was a big deal, it changed things altogether. I had him running ahead by as much as eight points in Ohio before that debate. That changed things, no doubt. But all those subsequent polls, that’s a little different. The media continues to compare current polls in terms of Obama to where he was before that debate. That makes things look much more dramatic than they are.”
Zogby remains unafraid to say three words that many pollsters would rather avoid. He’s been often asked this time around as he was back then to predict the outcome of the election. We gave it a try just in case he’d changed. “Who’s going to win?” we asked him. “I don’t know. I just don’t know” he said.
And right now, he says, there’s no way of knowing. “Look, every sign is heading towards a deadlock, like the Virginia thing,” he said. “It’s volatile. I can’t say that if some big deal happens that it couldn’t change everything. It might.
“Here’s the thing about this election as things stand right now,” he said. (This was October 26). “Anything can happen. That talk about Obama winning the electoral vote and losing the popular vote? That could happen. But it could happen for Romney too. Can Romney win without Ohio? Maybe, but he’d have to sweep just about everything else. You could have one of them win all the key states by less than a percentage point and create an electoral rout, and still lose the popular vote.”
“What’s worth looking are the things you find when you dig deeper in your polling,” he said. “That gender gap. Well, it was there, but you’ll find that married women are more concerned about jobs and the economy than single women. That youth vote—it might not show up for Obama or some of it might go the other way again because of jobs. Or ask if Romney is making a dent in the Latino vote? See how the turnout might be in the Evangelic vote—six months ago, a long time ago, understandably, it was still iffy . Will they show up? Turnout is key. The early voting, that’s a thing to watch out for.”
“Anything can happen.”
“I’ve been doing this a long time, I can remember making calls and a woman would answer and say, I’ll have to check and see what my husband thinks,” he said. “The tools have changed. The social media has been become very important, or at least more important. This instant feedback on the debates for instance. But the instant polling, trying to gauge the immediate effect, sometimes that’s not worth much because you don’t know how deep the polling has gone, who they’ve talked with.”
Zogby’s mantra is worth remembering in terms of polling. “A poll is a snapshot in time. It’s not a prediction. It says here is where we are, right now, not yesterday, not tomorrow. That’s real information, but it can change.”
Zogby and talked before the beginning of a different sort of storm—Sandy, the so-called perfect storm. It’s already caused candidates to cancel appearance, to re-direct their efforts, and its effects are still not known. For Obama, he has to more president than candidate.
Like Zogby said: “Anyting can happen.” ★