hill country observerThe independent newspaper of eastern New York, southwestern Vermont and the Berkshires




College plans Vermont’s first polling center


Contributing writer

When news organizations have tried to assess the public support for various state and federal candidates in Vermont, they’ve always had to rely on the work of out-of-state polling firms.

But that could soon change, as officials at Castleton State College are in the process of setting up the state’s first public opinion polling institute. The new polling operation, which has been under discussion for years, is expected to start operations sometime this winter.

“Vermont has never had an in-state public opinion research center,” said David Wolk, the college president, who began exploring the idea of a polling institute soon after he took office a decade ago.

It wasn’t until recently, however, that the college was able to amass the funding needed to cover the polling center’s start-up costs.

Wolk said the new program dovetails well with the college’s mission of public-service learning, and he promised a high standard for the institute’s work.

“The polling center will help place Castleton on the national map for public opinion research,” Wolk said. “We want people to respond with trust and respect for the results.”

Castleton, part of the Vermont State College system, is a public liberal arts school with just over 2,000 students, almost all undergraduates. The college offers more than 30 academic programs.

The new polling institute will be run by Richard Clark, who previously was director of the survey research and evaluation unit at the University of Georgia’s Carl Vinson Institute of Government. Before that, he was director of the master’s degree program in survey research at the University of Connecticut.

Public opinion research is “my profession and passion,” he said.

Clark will also serve as an adjunct political science instructor at Castleton.

The center will be set up in the college’s Stafford Learning Center, where it can easily be connected to the college library, Wolk said. It will have 16 workstations. The college has ordered equipment and software that are expected to arrive within two months.

Presidential primaries ahead

No exact start date has been set, but an initial poll in late December or early January seems possible.

“We would like to do something in advance of the New Hampshire primaries,” Clark said.

The center’s first assignments will be for clients in Georgia that Clark set up before he left that state.

“We don’t expect to generate a lot of revenue for the college, but students will have experience with real data collection,” Clark said. “It connects with that part of our teaching mission.”

At the moment, Clark is the polling institute’s only paid staff member, but he expects the center will employ 30 to 40 students part time when fully operational.

The jobs may be attractive to students in communications, social sciences and marketing, he said. The most important qualifications will be the ability to speak clearly, show up on time, and accept rejection.

“Calling centers have a high turnover rate,” Clark said. “One out of four people contacted hang up before the survey is complete. Callers need a bright attitude.”

As business increases, Clark hopes to hire people from outside the college who can work year-round.

“We don’t want to be hostage to the academic calendar,” he said.

Interacting with the public

The center will use computer-generated random digital dialing, Clark said. A computer can dial calls to landline phones, but cell phone numbers must be entered manually.

Call recipients with caller ID will see the college’s identification displayed on their phones, to reassure them that the call is legitimate. Still, not everyone will pick up.

“Response rates to telephone polls have been declining for more than 10 years,” Clark said. “They’re now in the low 20 percent.”

Pollsters try to adjust for different response rates among generations. Replies from young people, who are more likely to use hard-to-reach cell phones and less likely to answer a ring, are given more weight than replies from older people, who are more likely to have a land-line phone and to answer it, Clark said.

The center will also do Internet polling for selected populations. For example, one of the center’s first jobs will be to interview providers of services for small children in Georgia, Clark said. Because of state requirements, almost all of them are online, so reaching them over the Web will be easy.

The center will focus first on Vermont, but Wolk said he would like to see it expand to serve nearby states, such as New Hampshire. While keeping the center independent, the college president said he’ll invite Vermont’s broadcast and print media and corporate clients to visit and discuss how it might be of service to them.

At a fundamental level, however, Clark said the new institute will serve the public.

“Our objective is to gather information,” Clark said. “We hope to be the voice of the Vermont public. There’s a lot of human capital that goes into polling. We want people to volunteer their thoughts and opinions, and we want to respect them and their investment.”

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