Winthrop Poll hasn’t missed in predicting election outcomes

jself@heraldonline.comNovember 14, 2012 

— With the 2012 election complete, Winthrop University’s resident polling outfit can boast a track record of accurately predicting the outcome of elections.

The Winthrop Poll’s most recent prediction was the victory of Republican Tom Rice over Democrat Gloria Tinubu in South Carolina’s newly formed 7th Congressional District of the U.S. House of Representatives along the coast.

Before the election, the poll showed Rice ahead by 12.7 points. He won by 12.9.

That race “was fun to do because it was a new district,” said Scott Huffmon, poll director and professor of political science.

But boasting isn’t the goal of the Winthrop Poll, powered by the lesser-known Social and Behavioral Research Lab, which Huffmon founded in 2002.

The poll’s stated mission is “to keep public policy makers across the country in touch with the attitudes and opinions of citizens in South Carolina and the entire southern region” and inform South Carolinians about what their neighbors think.

While election polling garners a lot of attention, the poll also helps identify which issues are most important to the public.

“If no one else is digging deeper, then you don’t really know what your average South Carolinian is really thinking,” Huffmon said.

Created in 2006, the Winthrop Poll is conducted with paid employees, some of them students, who undergo rigorous training in conducting poll research, Huffmon said.

It subsists on a budget of about $78,500 a year, which doesn’t include polls it conducts for public entities or nonprofits, handled on a contract basis, he said.

Other successes:

• The Winthrop Poll estimated in 2006 that a constitutional amendment to ban same-sex marriage would pass with 73.5 percent of the vote. The amendment passed with 77.9 percent.

• In 2008, the Winthrop Poll conducted presidential polling for South Carolina, Virginia and North Carolina. Its estimate of Arizona Republican Sen. John McCain’s win in South Carolina came within 2 percentage points of his actual margin of victory.

The poll stated that Virginia and North Carolina were “too close to call” but showed Obama ahead in Virginia by 1 percentage point. He eventually won by 6 percentage points. The poll predicted Obama’s margin of victory in North Carolina, four-tenths of 1 percent, exactly.

Winthrop Poll detractors

The poll’s track record speaks to its commitment to accuracy, Huffmon said, but it has had its share of skeptics.

In 2010, it accurately predicted then-S.C. Rep. Nikki Haley would be elected governor, to the chagrin of some Democrats.

In 2011, S.C. Republican Party leaders disputed findings that Gov. Haley had lower approval ratings than President Barack Obama at the time.

In both instances, critics targeted the poll’s sample, claiming there were either too many Democrats or too many Republicans polled.

Huffmon disagrees, standing behind the scientific approach his polls take. He posts comparisons of the polling samples to the demographics they represent with all the results.

“When the numbers don’t tell the story that your side wants, both sides attack the messenger,” he said.

Huffmon became a more specific target this year.

A former state GOP employee asked to examine documents related to the poll, including Huffmon’s emails and identities of the people questioned.

The complainant threatened a lawsuit if the university didn’t hand them over.

Citing academic freedom and privacy issues, the university said it would withhold some of the documents and provide the others for a fee of more than $2,000. The request went no further and the university wasn’t sued, said Rebecca Masters, university spokeswoman.

‘Accurate portrait’

While polls aren’t always accurate, suspicion and criticism of a poll often comes “from the people it disadvantages,” said University of South Carolina professor Robert Oldendick, who directs the Institute for Public Service and Policy Research.

Mistrust also comes from “a lack of a good understanding of how you do good survey research. If there are 99 polls and one of them is wrong,” the wrong one will get a lot of attention, he said.

“Scott does a good job in terms of anticipating what the important issues are going to be” and in showing where public opinion lies on those issues, he said.

Attacks on polling research aren’t anything new, Huffmon said. But this election cycle, they took on more “vitriol and animus,” where “people were attacked in very personal ways” and accused of bias.

Nate Silver of The New York Times, who predicted both of President Barack Obama’s election victories in his FiveThirtyEight blog, is a prominent example.

Before the elections, Silver took a lot of heat from detractors.

Silver’s “real genius,” Huffmon said, was in “trusting scientific polls” that were “well-sampled” and aggregating them, nothing too complex.

“For those of us who understood scientific research, we knew what was coming.”

Hopefully, he said, “people now recognize that we don’t do this with an agenda. We do this to paint an accurate portrait of what people are feeling.”

Jamie Self 803-329-4062

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