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Public Opinion Strategies Turns 20, Reflects on Polling Industry

Tom Williams/Roll Call
The founding partners of Public Opinion Strategies — (from left) Gene Ulm, Glen Bolger, Neil Newhouse and Bill McInturff — have had a front-row seat to changes in campaigns and the polling industry over the past 20 years.

Framed mementos of past campaigns line the walls of Public Opinion Strategies’ headquarters, an understated brick building just off King Street in Old Town Alexandria.

Now in its 20th year, the Republican polling firm offers only a limited sample of its victories on its walls, but its influence is nonetheless clear.

One is a chart tracking Rep. Michele Bachmann’s (R-Minn.) surge in the polls in the waning weeks of her first Congressional election in 2006, when she was still just an attorney and state Senator from Stillwater.

Another is a January 2010 Washington Post opinion piece written by partners Neil Newhouse and Glen Bolger, shortly after they helped secure victories for Massachusetts Sen. Scott Brown and Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell. “Well, that didn’t take long, did it?” they wrote of the GOP rejuvenation a year after the Democratic landslide of 2008.

With 72 House Members and 19 Senators on its current client list, POS has grown over the past two decades into the largest Republican polling firm in the country. It has given founding partners Newhouse, Bolger, Bill McInturff and Gene Ulm a front-seat view of the evolution of campaign polling in the age of 24/7 news cycles and the need for instant results.

Times They Are A-Changing

One of the biggest changes in the polling industry in recent years is the proliferation of cheaper autodial surveys, done by firms such as SurveyUSA and Public Policy Polling. The POS partners, however, said that automated polling data make what traditional firms provide that much more valuable.

“Those push-button polls can do a good job of telling you who’s ahead and who’s behind,” Newhouse said during an interview at the firm’s office. “But what we pride ourselves on is when a campaign is trying to figure out how to get from point A to point B — and the message is the necessary way to do that — that’s what we do well.”

Bolger added that autodial polling “can never do the kind of in-depth message testing that we do with our work. It doesn’t have the same depth of targeting, cross-tabs and everything.”

Along with an influx of new firms and autodial polling, technology has affected the way business is done in the survey research world as well.

“The turnaround, the productivity per employee, being able to get surveys in and out of the field quickly with less hassle, all computerized — it’s just made it much faster,” Newhouse said.

The four partners founded POS in 1991 after leaving the Wirthlin Group, where they learned the industry from Ronald Reagan’s pollster, Richard Wirthlin.

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