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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.

Newhouse recounted days of trekking into the Wirthlin Group’s data-processing room and flipping through big sheets of paper to read Reagan’s approval rating and generic ballot numbers. On Fridays late in the cycle, they would order pizza and watch VHS tapes of compiled political ads from across the country — a service once provided by the Hotline.

“Our business, like any other, has been caught up in the technology change,” McInturff said. “Our business is being transformed because of cellphone-onlys, lack of cooperation. Those issues are substantial.”

As the technology changes, so do the practitioners in the polling world, Ulm said, with academics once dominating the business. “Most of the people now in this business, their backgrounds are politics,” he said. “They arrived at being researchers after being practitioners.”

Going forward, McInturff said, “tracking social media” will be the new wave. “Instead of asking questions, you’re sort of hearing and tracking opinion.”

‘Eat What You Kill’

Spotting trends and moving quickly to sign clients is important with firms such as the Tarrance Group and McLaughlin & Associates nipping at POS’ heels.

The Tarrance Group has a long stable of Members on its client list as well, including 53 Representatives and eight Senators. Tarrance’s Ed Goeas and the POS partners said they hold a mutual respect for each other, and both joked that GOP consultants get along much better than Democrats.

“Sometimes we go against each other in primaries, but more often than not we’re both fighting for the majority of Congress and for Republicans,” Goeas said. “And I think we respect each other for that.”

“We have personal relationships,” McInturff said of the GOP consulting community. “It’s just harder to take a sledgehammer to somebody when you’ve been to their wedding.”

Even some Democratic pollsters praised the firm and its principals.

“POS is a worthy adversary and a trusted collaborator,” said Fred Yang of Hart Research Associates, who collaborates on the NBC-Wall Street Journal poll with McInturff.

There is competition within the firm as well, where pay is linked to how many clients one brings in.

“At our firm, your compensation is based on, you eat what you kill,” Newhouse said. “And it’s worked very well. It’s sort of the Republican way of business.”

The partners are wedded financially to each other. After leaving Wirthlin with all of their own clients, they wrote a partners agreement that would eliminate that possibility at POS. “If you leave the company you get $10 per handshake. That’s it,” Newhouse said.

Bigger Is Better

With 12 partners now — located in California, Colorado, New York, Pennsylvania and Virginia — POS is three to four times bigger than the partners ever imagined, thanks in large part to the long list of corporate and issue group clients on its roster.

Public policy research is now about half of the firm’s business, compared with about 20 percent when POS started polling for the health insurance industry in 1991.

On the political side, they not only poll the horse-race numbers, ad testing and potential messaging, but the partners also personally conduct an extensive number of focus groups to round out their research and provide strategic recommendations for candidates.

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