Pollster John Zogby Shares Insight

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Pollsters—who have proliferated with every
presidential election—are funny people. It
turns people just don’t understand them, or
rather what they do.

We hadn’t talked with Pollster John Zogby,
then of John Zogby International, since the last
presidential election campaign in 2008, right
after the New Hampshire primary which produced
some interesting results then.

Back then we caught up with him on his cell
phone. He was enroute—we forget to where—
and he was on a train.

Four years later, after some digging around
on the net, we found him again last Wednesday—
heading toward an airport. We finally talked last
Friday—and indicative of what’s been going
on the polling arena, things had changed in the
interim.

“Yes, last night (Thursday, October 26), I
thought I detected a little bit of a surge towards
Obama, but by the time I got back, we saw a
dead heat in Virginia—48/48.”

That was an indication of how tight this election
has become—depending on the pollster and
polls you look at, there are national deadlocks
among likely and/or general voters, and many
but not all of the battleground states are heading
towards: you guessed, it deadlocks, depending
on what polls you read, study or believe.

Of course, for Zogby, since we talked to him
last in 2008, there have been a lot of changes,
too. Back then, he was (and continues to be) one
of the most respect pollsters in the country. He
had gained some fame back in the 1990s, after
founding his firm Zogby International in 1984,
after one of his polls showed that New York
State Governor Mario Cuomo would lose to then
president George. H.W. Bush in his home state.
Later, in an astonishing feat giving the outcome,
he polled ahead of the result the final numbers
of the 2000 presidential election within a tenth
of the actual result.

In 2008, just to show the vitality of things
even then, Hilary Clinton—after showing
what was detected to be some teary emotion—
had won the New Hampshire Primary stalling
Barack Obama’s impending victory parade.
Zogby’s rolling polling had apparently missed
that development. Back then, he said “Look,
we got everything else right—we got McCain,
we had Obama’s almost exact numbers, but we
had stopped before the effects of the “moment”.”

Since then, after years of heading Zogby
International, he sold his controlling shares to
the Brazilian company IBOPE. “That was a
big thing, sure,” he said. But Zogby is still a
major force in polling—the recent Virginia tie
for instance was part of polling he is doing for
and in conjunction with the Washington Times.
In addition, he polls with Forbes Magazine and
others, and most important of all, he’s joined
JZ Analytics, a Polling Firm run by his son,
Jonathan, in the role of Senior Adviser.

“Nope, I haven’t retired,” Zogby, 63, said.
“But working with my son, that’s very, very nice,
sure, that’s very special, of course it is. It’s a
very major thing.”

Other things have changed, too, not so much
for him, as in the world of polls and pollsters.
“Sure, sure, there’s more of them, the tools have
changed, and the techniques have changed—the
robo calls, for instance are still there, but that’s a very difficult thing to bring off in depth when
you have so many people using cell phones, it’s
harder to get the numbers.”

Zogby did not agree, and he did not agree
then that voters are heavily influenced by polls.
“I honestly can’t say that I have ever met anybody
that voted because of a poll.

“What I do believe is the media makes more
use of polls now than they did four years ago,”
he said. “And they create story lines from polls,
they look at certain things and emphasize them,
sometimes even if they’re not important, or just
to frame their stories And now, today, in the
debates for instance. There is no question that
Obama’s debate performance in the first one was
a big deal, it changed things altogether. I had
him running ahead by as much as eight points in
Ohio before that debate. That changed things,
no doubt. But all those subsequent polls, that’s a
little different. The media continues to compare
current polls in terms of Obama to where he was
before that debate. That makes things look much
more dramatic than they are.”

Zogby remains unafraid to say three words
that many pollsters would rather avoid. He’s
been often asked this time around as he was back
then to predict the outcome of the election. We
gave it a try just in case he’d changed. “Who’s
going to win?” we asked him. “I don’t know. I
just don’t know” he said.

And right now, he says, there’s no way of
knowing. “Look, every sign is heading towards
a deadlock, like the Virginia thing,” he said. “It’s
volatile. I can’t say that if some big deal happens
that it couldn’t change everything. It might.

“Here’s the thing about this election as things
stand right now,” he said. (This was October 26).
“Anything can happen. That talk about Obama
winning the electoral vote and losing the popular
vote? That could happen. But it could happen
for Romney too. Can Romney win without
Ohio? Maybe, but he’d have to sweep just about
everything else. You could have one of them
win all the key states by less than a percentage
point and create an electoral rout, and still lose
the popular vote.”

“What’s worth looking are the things you
find when you dig deeper in your polling,” he
said. “That gender gap. Well, it was there, but
you’ll find that married women are more concerned
about jobs and the economy than single
women. That youth vote—it might not show up
for Obama or some of it might go the other way
again because of jobs. Or ask if Romney is making
a dent in the Latino vote? See how the turnout
might be in the Evangelic vote—six months
ago, a long time ago, understandably, it was still
iffy . Will they show up? Turnout is key. The
early voting, that’s a thing to watch out for.”

“Anything can happen.”

“I’ve been doing this a long time, I can
remember making calls and a woman would answer and say, I’ll have to check and see what
my husband thinks,” he said. “The tools have
changed. The social media has been become
very important, or at least more important. This
instant feedback on the debates for instance. But
the instant polling, trying to gauge the immediate
effect, sometimes that’s not worth much because
you don’t know how deep the polling has gone,
who they’ve talked with.”

Zogby’s mantra is worth remembering in
terms of polling. “A poll is a snapshot in time.
It’s not a prediction. It says here is where we are,
right now, not yesterday, not tomorrow. That’s
real information, but it can change.”

Zogby and talked before the beginning of
a different sort of storm—Sandy, the so-called
perfect storm. It’s already caused candidates to
cancel appearance, to re-direct their efforts, and
its effects are still not known. For Obama, he
has to more president than candidate.

Like Zogby said: “Anyting can happen.” ?

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