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College-Based Polls Increasing

October 27, 1997

HAMDEN, Conn. (AP) _ Political experts in New Jersey are calling their governor’s race too close to call, but a Connecticut college student is confidently predicting Gov. Christie Whitman’s re-election.

Amy Cicchese isn’t reading the polls; she’s taking one. The 20-year-old from Mendon, Mass., who’s majoring in occupational therapy, is among more than 100 interviewers paid by the Quinnipiac College Poll to spend evenings and Saturdays dialing up random strangers.

Quinnipiac’s is one of an increasing number of college-based polls around the country that are becoming fixtures in American politics. Ever more affordable computers make it a snap to collect and analyze the data, which are gobbled up by the news media.

The researchers who direct such polls say they try to work with the media to put their findings in perspective, especially in elections where everyone just wants to know who’s ahead.

``When you’re conducting a poll, you’re making many judgments that can affect the numbers in dramatic ways,″ said Lee Miringoff, director of the Marist College Institute for Public Opinion in Poughkeepsie, N.Y.

Polls by Marist and Quinnipiac colleges and by the Eagleton Institute at Rutgers, the state university in New Jersey, helped shape expectations throughout the re-election battles of Whitman and Mayor Rudolph Guiliani in New York. Expectations, in turn, can affect campaign donations and news coverage.

That raises the question of whether college-based polls are more or less reliable than those run by commercial pollsters and news organizations.

``They run the gamut from absolutely top-notch to absolutely shocking,″ said Seldon Gawiser, an NBC News consultant and president of the National Council on Public Polls.

``Student interviewers can be just as good as any other interviewers, or just as bad,″ he said. ``What’s important is how they are recruited, trained and monitored.″

Except at the big commercial polling houses, most surveys are taken by diverse part-timers who want to make extra income working nights and weekends.

New York City and New Jersey are notoriously difficult places to poll voters. Party affiliation is not very high or intense, so a significant number decide at the last minute or change their minds, and there are geographic pockets where few speak English or care to cooperate.

Pollsters tend to do what they can with the information available, just as the student interviewers do in forming impressions.

``If you work two nights you pretty much know who’s going to win,″ said Karen Krein, a 21-year-old senior who averages more than 10 nights at the Quinnipiac poll every month.

One recent evening, just before the first televised debate between Whitman and Democratic state Sen. Jim McGreevey, Cicchese was willing to risk predicting a Whitman victory because ``people haven’t heard of McGreevey.″

In fact, Whitman led McGreevey by 8 points. That made news Wednesday, but poll director Doug Schwartz emphasized that the survey also shed light on trends in the campaign.

``The goal is trying to find out what issues are important to New Jersey voters as they are making up their minds,″ Schwartz said.

The poll, founded in 1987, is financed solely by the college for its academic and public relations value. Schwartz, who started his career at the CBS News election and survey unit, tries to follow the most reputable methods but doesn’t have all the advantages of the big polling houses, like bilingual interviewers.

Sue Barez, the manager of interviewer operations, gathers the students in a hallway near the phone bank to go over pronunciations and make a last-minute addition to the 59-question New Jersey poll: When asked what issue matters most, respondents who say ``insurance″ or ``taxes″ must be asked a follow-up. Schwartz says he wants to know whether health or auto insurance is the issue, or whether concern centers on income or property taxes.

During the poll, Barez wanders the phone room, which fills with a cacophony of mostly female, Northeastern-accented voices reading earnestly from computer terminals. ``STICK To The Script,″ a poster warns, and another supervisor taps into the phone lines to enforce the rule and write up instant report cards.

``It’s not always great fun, but it’s good job experience,″ said Krein, a major in Quinnipiac’s Ed McMahon School of Mass Communications.

``For the students it’s an incredible front-row seat to the political process,″ Miringoff said. ``They engage in ways that chalk and talk doesn’t do it in the classroom.″