Bowdoin Students Get Polls Right, Even If Experts Don't

Potholm in his office.
Potholm in his office, replete with vintage campaign signs and photos.

Story posted November 04, 2004

On November 2nd, when early exit polls and insider dope indicated presidential candidate John Kerry might have a lead in important swing states, even Republican polling expert Chris Potholm thought Kerry had it in the bag. The Bowdoin College Professor of Government emailed several Kerry-supporting colleagues pronouncing their candidate an almost certain winner.

His students should have been the pollsters, he now says.

"Thirty Bowdoin students went out along with other untrained Colby and Bates College students to do exit polls," says Potholm, leaning back at his desk at Hubbard Hall. "They called the presidential race right, they called a tax-cap initiative, the two congressional races, and they correctly called a proposition on bear hunting. So, if Bowdoin students can get exit polling right, why is it that ABC, NBC and Fox can't get it right?"

On a day when Potholm should be gloating with victory, he finds himself fielding phone calls from national media with one question on their mind: How could the exit polls have been so wrong?

"Those exit polls were really a disservice to polling," he says. "All across the country these early polls took a bad sample and exaggerated its impact. Whether it was done maliciously or not, it was just bad polling not to balance your sample."

"So, if Bowdoin students can get exit polling right, why is it that ABC, NBC and Fox can't get it right?"

Students in Potholm's Maine Politics class would never get away with such methods. As part of their class participation this fall, Potholm had them develop their own presidential campaigns, complete with commercials. They had to stand on street corners holding campaign signs. There was one twist, however: They had to campaign for the candidate they didn't actually support.

"When you're eighteen, it's too easy to feel self-righteous," explains Potholm. "But when you have to stand out there with a Bush sign, and you're really for Kerry, and the truck driver goes by and gives you the high sign, well, you begin to see who identifies with you. That teaches a very valuable lesson."

The crowning moment of their political exploration came during Election Day, when students hit polling stations from Brunswick to Freeport to Harpswell. They conducted exit polls, asking a range of voting-related questions -- as well as collection of demographic data, to ensure a statistically accurate range of voters.

Their polling data, which was collected from approximately 2,000 voters over the course of the morning and afternoon, showed Kerry would carry Maine by 10 percentage points, and win all four of Maine's electoral votes. Their data was delivered to the Capitol News Service, which conducts a statewide poll.

So, what made Bowdoin's student pollsters more accurate than the professionals? "Balance," says Potholm. "We always balance exit polling by gender, and then within females by whether they work at home or outside the home.

"What I think happened in the national polls was that the initial polls were 58 percent women. Three-quarters of those were women going to work -- that was Bush's worst category and Kerry's best. Even in our class, with our rudimentary polling, students would always balance it with voters from the end of the day."

Despite the poor example of national polling on Election Day, Potholm remains a staunch believer in polls - both as a public pulse-taking instrument and as an educational tool.

"Exit polling is a lot easier than we are led to believe when we see the shoddy work being done. They can be very accurate, but they have to be balanced by the outcome of the population. When the day is all over, your sample should look like when all the votes are cast.

"Even untrained students, following the right methodology, can be fairly accurate," he adds, "but it's not just about methodology. By doing the poll, students talk to real people and they come back and say: 'I couldn't believe it, this woman was in favor of bear trapping,' or 'This man said this or that.' It's a kind of reality check. Having our somewhat privileged student body find out what real people think and why they think it teaches them respect for people who live outside our world of academia."

Potholm, who joined Bowdoin's faculty in 1970, is a frequently quoted source for local and national media, including the New York Times, The Washington Post, CNN, and ABC. He is founder and president of Common Research, a national polling firm.

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