What’s With All the “Quinnipiac University” Polls?

How an obscure school in Connecticut turned into a major opinion research center.

Quinnipiac University

A Quinnipiac University poll released Tuesday found Obama ahead in four battleground states: Colorado, Michigan, Minnesota, and Wisconsin. These results were published on Pollster.com, by the Associated Press, and in the Denver Post, among other news outlets. How does an obscure university in Connecticut maintain a major national polling service?

Easy access to a willing labor pool. The grunt work of surveys—conducting telephone interviews—is performed primarily by Q-Pac students on work-study, or those who major in a subject that dovetails with polling, like political science, communications, or psychology. For their efforts, the students are compensated $9.50 an hour. Then a small team of experts (mostly former journalists) analyze the survey results and communicate them to the press. The university foots the whole bill, funding the center like an academic department.

Quinnipiac started conducting local surveys in 1988 as an outgrowth of a marketing class. In 1994, the university hired a CBS News election-night analyst to expand the relatively casual polling services into a full-time operation. It did this, at least in part, to make a name for itself. (And the “Q-Poll,” as it’s called by those in the know, does attract publicity. A 2007 New York Times article on the university’s basketball coach noted that Quinnipiac is “best known for its polling institute.”) Q-Pac started polling New Jersey in 1996 and Pennsylvania in 2002; now it partners with the Washington Post and the Wall Street Journal to conduct surveys in swing states. (The two papers donate money to a scholarship fund for journalism students rather than paying for services directly.)

Quinnipiac wasn’t the first university to get in on the survey game. Marist College (of Marist poll fame) in Poughkeepsie, N.Y., started enlisting students to conduct polls on local elections in the late 1970s and national ones in the 1980s. At the time, much of the opinion research on elections came from the campaigns, so the media cottoned to Marist as a source of independent information. The Marist poll, unlike the Q-Poll, taps into funding sources outside the college. (Trivia: John Lahey, the current president of Quinnipiac who presided over the creation of Q-Pac’s survey operations, was actually vice president at Marist beforehand.)

It’s not uncommon for schools to have polling operations. Muhlenberg College in Allentown, Pa., has an Institute of Public Opinion that conducts political surveys. And at dozens of colleges, students engage in less glamorous survey work—like telephone research for the state health department or the DMV—principally as an educational opportunity. Polling isn’t exclusive to little-known schools, either. There’s a Princeton University Survey Research Center, which was founded with a grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.

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Explainer thanks Scott Keeter of the Pew Research Center, Lee Miringoff of the Marist Institute for Public Opinion, and Doug Schwartz of the Quinnipiac University Polling Institute.