Kent: There seems to be small but vocal crows of political pundits who analyze polls and pollsters in Georgia. Some say “a Georgia primary is impossible to poll.” Others do comparisons and rankings. You have been polling political races, on a year in, year out basis longer than anyone in Georgia. What really is the state of political, or should I say public opinion, polling in our state?
Towery: It’s actually very good. Most of the groups that poll for news organizations had the U.S. Senate race spread within their margins of error, which is I guess the goal. The RealClearPolitics average of all of the polls that they list together really came in amazingly close to the finish if the top three candidates.
Kent: You’ve been a part of Real Clear…
Towery: Not to interrupt you but basically, if you are asking about years, I want to say almost from the start. They are great people who have an amazing site. Really, for all of the so-called polling experts, their average of races really comes in amazingly close, race after race and year after year.
Kent: Your team has used automated phone polling for it seems like years. The polling critics seem to always put it down, but it seems to be very accurate. Is that a correct statement?
Towery: Yes, that’s correct, with one big caveat. You see by 2002 IVR (automated telephone polling) was becoming increasingly reliable. And by, I would say 2006, it was clearly the best method of keeping up with various quick turns in opinion in a given political race. I think it really reached its apex in 2010 when not just us, put several other IVR pollsters nailed the GOP primary race for governor after having polled the Atlanta race for mayor to like half a percentage point as terms of the spread and where the race ended up. And IVR was very strong in 2012 in terms of polling that disaster of a metro-Atlanta TSPLOST. Guys like John (Garst of Rosetta Stone) and our group all had that thing as a big time loser from the start and the spread in terms of the percentage of the loss never really changed.
Kent: But you said that you had a caveat, what is that?
Towery: I think the IVR system remains the best approach in Georgia overall because, like I said, it is short and can be conducted in one night. You might recall that in the 2010 GOP gubernatorial race, the “live call center” polling got the race way off. I knew that pollster and he is a great pollster and good personal friend. But the poll was stretched out too many days and events turned right towards the end of his survey and hence, it was off.
Kent: But where’s the caveat?
Towery: The caveat is that telephone polling, probably by the end of this decade, is going the way of the horse and buggy. Well, maybe not that far, but it will have to be just part of the equation.
Kent: Is that because of cell phones?
Towery: Sort of, but the whole cell phone in polls stuff is overblown. Yes, landlines are dying off quickly, but when you dial hundreds of thousands of households, you can still get a good sample of every demographic. It’s really that, as landlines die, getting people to take a telephone poll on a cell phone is unworkable. I mean just think about how people use their cell phones now. They are texting, surfing the web, reading emails, etc. And particularly among younger people, they just don’t like talking on their cell unless they have to. So do you really think some twenty-something is going to just stop what they are doing and answer sixty questions on a cell phone? No way, and I think the pollsters who claim they can get that to happen will begin to disappear as there is more scrutiny as to what kind of person they can convince to use their cell for a twenty minute or longer interview.
Kent: So phone polling dies?
Towery: No, but it has to be used as part of collecting a sample, not as the only source, or should I say in the near future. I’m convinced at it as I look back on Matt’s (Towery’s son, Matthew Towery, Jr., who also goes by Matt) and his so-called “SuperPolls” that he conducted with us in the GOP Senate primary. To be blunt, if you sort of RCP our average as a whole on the race-we had the candidates finishing in their respective order and within the margin of error for the overall polls. But, if you just pull out his “SuperPolls” and RCP average them, then it turns out not only to have the right order of finish between the top three candidates, but comes much closer to the actual finish.
Kent: And caught some grief over that system that kind of used folks from both telephone and the online world to create the poll, right?
Towery: (Laughing) Oh yes. But from the same national “gurus” who gave us hell for years over IVR polling that is until most of the top firms turned to IVR as well. The difference here is that I got into polling as a former officeholder/campaign strategist who sort of had a polling division lumped into the evolving InsiderAdvantage back years ago. Matt studied this stuff from undergraduate on to getting his Masters and now as a PH.D candidate. I mean he really is in a league of his own here in this state and really among the best in the nation.
Kent: So was this planned for him to go learn about opinion research?
Towery: No, not at all. I really didn’t realize that this was what he was trained to do until, I guess, two years ago. Unlike me he is not an endless talker and I just assumed he was a generalist in Political Science. But back to his detractors. They actually were much kinder to him than me. I think in part because they could tell he probably knew more than they did and in part because he’s pretty much a Democrat and leans to shall I say “the progressive side” in his personal politics. It does not impact his polls, but at least at places like Huffington Post it has them muttering “well, at least the son is smarter than the father.”
Kent: Back to this sort of hybrid “SuperPoll”…
Towery: It’s the real wave of the future. As I understand it, Matt takes the sample we collect by phone and the sample he collects online, and then pulls a random sample from each. Now it’s probably more complicated than that but remember I was trained to be and still am a lawyer by profession, so, as most would attest, I’m not rocket scientist. But I do have a really good feel for the art and science of polling. And I think the online portion helps account for the opinion of the most likely to vote as well as the younger voter who just will not mess with a landline or cell interview. When that’s combined with phone it is magic. And someday all polling will be strictly online or via some device where questions will be read and answered.
Kent: A lot of people in this little political community like to pick on your polling. So who would you pick on?
Towery: None of the pollsters who poll for news organizations. I mean here in Georgia Rosetta Stone and Landmark do a fine job and I find SurveyUSA to be highly reliable as well. PPP, which puts it up front that they lean Democrat, is also a fine operation and did particularly well in the ’08 cycle. I generally am not quite as wild about the “for hire” partisan pollsters because I find they sometimes provide numbers that are best case scenario for their clients. And I get it. They have to keep momentum going so donors give, etc. And it’s not that they are dishonest or not good pollsters, many of them are great. But they manage to operate with none of scrutiny those of us on the public/news side of the equation receive. And they can use certain techniques that we can’t use because our consumers would not accept those methods. But basically most pollsters are pretty good. This is not an easy thing and generally, if you lumped all of us into one barrel, we are within or collective margin of error almost every time.
Kent: So in as few words as you can, quick answers to three final questions.
Towery: I’ll try
Kent: The Deal-Carter race.
Towery: Slight advantage Deal. Both campaigns are sloppy right now. Deal’s is late creating the warm and fuzzy feeling an incumbent needs. But Carter’s just seems riddled with rookie mistakes. I mean Georgia is full of people from somewhere else but your ad brags about being a tenth generation Georgian? All that gets you is the DAR vote!
Kent: Kingston versus Perdue.
Towery: Well I know stuff like this felon having donated seems big, but unless Kingston is tied to the Kennedy assassination (laughs) I think the turnout model just makes it very tough for Perdue to win. That said, I see Perdue as a huge candidate for governor in four years, if he wants to hang around and play the game. I think he’s impressive. But I think Jack’s turnout tree has deeper roots.
Kent: The future of polling is…
Towery: A new generation, in every way. It’s going to move to online in the blink of an eye. But in the meantime it will be a hybrid of phone and online. I think the cell phone as a voice instrument for polling will be the death of voice-related, be it live or automated, polling within the next ten years. Now smart phones as they evolve will play an increasingly strong role in polling, but it will be more like gathering online responses. And I’ll leave that to my son and his colleagues to develop.