SurveyMonkey Ups Cred As Pollster, Hires Election Czar

Technological changes have knocked the election polling industry off the rails—but now tech companies are trying to get it back on track.

SurveyMonkey just announced it is amping up its commitment to capturing public opinion during political contests, starting with the 2016 presidential election. This week, the company announced the hiring of its first head of election polling: Mark Blumenthal, a former professional campaign pollster who is leaving his job as senior polling editor at The Huffington Post.

Blumenthal (pictured above) was the co-founder of Pollster.com, a website where polling results from various sources were compiled, compared, and interpreted. In 2010, The Huffington Post acquired the site, where Blumenthal chronicled the rise of Internet access, cell phone usage, and other changes over the past 20 years that have eroded the accuracy of traditional telephone polling. Marketers have moved their research online. Venerable election polling source Gallup, whose polls fell embarrassingly short of the mark in the 2012 presidential race, recently said it will not try to predict the winners in the 2016 presidential election but will focus instead on issue polling.

With Blumenthal’s help, Palo Alto, CA-based SurveyMonkey plans to conduct research and discover best practices for using online surveys—its stock in trade—to gauge the mood of the electorate.

In its routine role, SurveyMonkey helps customers set up quick questionnaires online—from a company’s poll of employee opinions to a home chef’s query on menu preferences for a big family barbeque. But the company’s survey research team, which includes former Washington Post lead pollster Jon Cohen, has recently been conducting early presidential campaign polls in a partnership with NBC News. For example, SurveyMonkey collected and tabulated poll results on public reaction to the Oct. 13 debate this month among candidates for the Democratic Party nomination, in a partnership with the Data Analytics Lab of NBC News and the University of Pennsylvania’s Program on Opinion Research and Election Studies. The poll named Hillary Clinton the winner.

Blumenthal is joining Cohen and other company experts to continue adapting SurveyMonkey’s tools to take the temperature of public opinion during the election cycle.

Blumenthal says he’s thrilled to be back in the polling game with SurveyMonkey, because he can tap into the opinions of the three million Americans who are already responding to SurveyMonkey surveys every day.

“We’re at this moment of reinvention in the survey world,” Blumenthal says. “I wanted to get back in and be part of the revolution.”

For election polling, selected SurveyMonkey participants who have finished responding to a customer’s survey are sent to a new page where they’re asked if they’d like to answer a few more questions. If they say yes, they’re given questions about candidates, political issues, and the like. About 10 to 20 percent say yes, the company says.

Blumenthal says he expects that the SurveyMonkey research team will have an easier time than traditional pollsters in tapping the views of Americans who, taken together, accurately reflect the country’s true range of demographic types and political outlooks.

For one thing, Blumenthal says, an online survey avoids some of the problems that have skewed results of traditional polls since the mid 2000s. In a method that dates back decades, conventional pollsters would simply select a random sampling of published telephone numbers to call. But citizens find those calls annoying, and huge numbers of people have also abandoned their landlines for cell phones. On top of that, federal rules forbid pollsters to make automated calls to cell phones, which cuts down their efficiency. And the Federal Communications Commission recently encouraged phone service providers to develop technologies that enable consumers to block robocalls to their mobile phones, as well as their landlines.

Compared with phone surveys, an online query is less … Next Page »

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Bernadette Tansey is Xconomy's San Francisco Editor. You can reach her at btansey@xconomy.com. Follow @Tansey_Xconomy

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