How Emerson College Polling predicts electoral trends across the nation


Emerson Polling director Spencer Kimball at the EC Polling office / Tivara Tanudjaja

By Dana Gerber, News Editor

While the country gears up to vote in the upcoming primary elections, Emerson College Polling, releasing a new state poll every week and a new national poll every month, is busy determining which candidate is likely to prevail.

Since last summer, the polling organization has risen to the national stage where their work is cited in publications such as The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Vox, CBS, and The Hill. It first received attention when President Donald Trump referenced an Emerson Polling poll in a tweet. His interpretation of the data was criticized by a Boston Globe article, which Kimball was quoted in. The Emerson Polling Twitter page has approximately 13,000 followers. 

“We’re happy that people are looking at our work,” Emerson Polling Director Spencer Kimball said. “We get good coverage of our work because it’s good work.”

Emerson Polling conducts weekly state polls to gauge voter opinions of candidates and popular issues, such as the Dec. 10 poll that put Former Vice President Joe Biden in the lead in Iowa and questioned voter opinion on healthcare policy. They also conduct monthly national polls; their most recent one, published on Nov. 21, put Biden, Sen. Bernie Sanders, and Sen. Elizabeth Warren in the lead, with the other candidates trailing far behind. 

Emerson Polling is a nonprofit organization Kimball started in 2017 that conducts both state and national political opinion polls, often dealing with issues of policy and candidate preference. Emerson Polling recently teamed up with Boston’s Channel 7 for New Hampshire primary polling, and, according to Kimball, other outlets are interested in partnering with them for upcoming primary polls. Emerson Polling is the professional arm of Emerson College Polling Society, the SGA-recognized student organization that Kimball also started in 2012. 

Emerson Polling is a four-person team staffed by Kimball, students Brendan Kane and Camille Mumford, and one part-time assistant. All staffers are paid. Kimball said they are in the process of hiring five to six new Emerson Polling student workers for the spring semester in order to handle the increased amount of primary polling. 

Kimball said they are also currently working on conducting a poll for the MBTA on customer issues. They are not being paid for the MBTA poll, but are often paid for other polling jobs. 

The Emerson College Polling Society surveys student’s opinions and conducts market surveys for clients such as the Marijuana Policy Project Foundation. ECPS is within the School of Communications, and students can receive one non-tuition credit per semester for their participation in the organization. Students who do well in ECPS or other polling classes can be hired by Emerson Polling. Kimball is the faculty advisor for ECPS, Kane is the president, and Mumford is the vice president. 

“There was always this reputation or this thought that if you didn’t want to do math, you went to Emerson,” Kimball said. “I worked with students in politics, and noticed that they had a knack for polling.”

Kimball said that the organizations provide students with relevant, valuable skills that they can parlay into their careers. 

“[Students] learn different skills of how to set up surveys, how to write surveys, how to do analysis, and how to write reports and disseminate those polls,” Kimball said. 

Emerson Polling’s work in the past midterm election garnered acclaim, with 93 percent of the 2018 midterm polls they conducted being statistically accurate.

To conduct their polls and surveys the organizations follow a five-step process, according to Kimball. First, they determine what they want to study and write the questions to study it. Then, the team decides whether to collect the data digitally or in person. Next, they pull a sample of people and contact them to conduct the poll or survey. Then, individuals analyze the data and ‘weight’ it to ensure it’s representative of the population they aimed to study. Finally, the group writes a press release and publish it via their website and social media. 

When deciding what topics to study, Emerson Polling turns to topical issues they find worthy of investigation, such as the impeachment inquiry

“[It’s] anything that piques our interest, basically,” Kane said. 

Emerson Polling, Kimball said, emphasizes career-oriented skills, so students can easily get jobs after graduating in marketing and political fields. Kimball said alumni of Emerson Polling have gone on to work at professional polling organizations, and after a recent trip to Washington, he believed the professional polling organizations they met with were interested in hiring the students after they graduated. 

“I think the industry is very impressed with the Emerson students that come out of the program,” Kimball said. “They could be working on a campaign tomorrow.”

The prospect of getting in-the-trenches experiences was what Kane and Mumford said attracted them to the organization. 

“I think it’s really interesting, [the] data analysis part of politics, and it’s something we’re interested in going into in the future,” Mumford said. “It’s really important to understand how voter attitudes change over time, and clearly it’s good experience to do a lot of hands-on education here.”

Kane agreed, adding that the professionalism of the organization was a draw for him. 

“Even before I came to Emerson, I knew about Emerson Polling,” he said. “I knew that it was something you could get involved in as an undergrad, and things you work on could be actual media on cable news, or on major newspapers.” 

Moving forward, Kimball said that he hopes the organization becomes more focused on surveys, which Kimball said is a $5 billion global industry. While polls are generally just one multiple choice question—such as which candidate an individual supports—surveys are better suited for market research because they can explore a number of different topics through multiple choice questions, short answer questions, ratings, and more.  

“Surveys are being done because it tells us what our audience is thinking, to be able to create messages to better persuade or reinforce or shape somebody’s opinion,” Kimball said. “I think polling is really just the tip of the iceberg.”

Kimball said that he believes a knowledge of polling and surveying is practical for everybody, regardless of whether or not they end up turning it into a career. 

“Not every one of the students in the program are going to go on to become pollsters or surveyors,” Kimball said. “But I think we’re all going to have to deal with survey data in some form or another in making our decisions.”