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Thursday, February 22, 2024

Technology is changing political polling

Your home phone rings, but you don't pick up because you don't recognize the number that flashes on your caller ID. Or maybe you abandoned your landline months ago because it's more economical to use your cell phone.

Your home phone rings, but you don’t pick up because you don’t recognize the number that flashes on your caller ID. Or maybe you abandoned your landline months ago because it’s more economical to use your cell phone.

You’re precisely the type of person John Dick is betting on: someone who won’t bother with traditional telephone polls but is likely to respond to political or consumer questions while browsing the Internet.

“With caller ID, cell phones and do-not-call lists, huge segments of the population are missed,” said Dick, who founded Pittsburgh-based Civic Science to develop online polls.

Launching the company the year before a presidential election provided some ready-made clients: Civic Science created polls that began running this month on the party Web sites of Pennsylvania’s Republicans and Democrats. It also has developed online polls for private customers the founder declined to name.

Though the timing was ripe for a political polling business, Dick didn’t plan it that way.

Just a year ago, he sold his interest in another local startup, GSP Consulting, which he co-founded in 2001. It provides lobbying services primarily for high-tech and nonprofit clients, and it has grown to 30 people in five offices in Pittsburgh and elsewhere.

“I was going to take six months off after I sold my share of GSP,” said Dick, 32, who worked on the staff of former U.S. Sen. Rick Santorum, R-Pa., and for Santorum’s 2000 election campaign before he started GSP.

But while researching ideas last summer for his next venture, he applied for and won a $200,000 grant from the Heinz Foundation to develop a consumer polling and market research company. He used the money to set up shop and raised another $200,000 from individual investors.

Civic Science has two other full-time employees besides Dick, and he wants to add programmers.

Dick estimates only 13 percent of polling is conducted online, so there’s a huge, untapped market for Civic Science. He has assembled a team of scientific advisers from universities including Duke, Carnegie Mellon and Harvard to figure out how to poll while protecting respondents’ privacy and their personal data’s security.

“We don’t care about names and e-mail addresses,” Dick said. “People won’t share candid opinions if they’re not assured about privacy.”

Civic Science’s current model is a concise, three-question box poll that can be customized for political groups or consumer marketing surveys. For instance, a poll running this week on the Pennsylvania Republicans’ Web site,, asks viewers several questions. If they were the Republican nominee, which candidate would they rather run against: Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton or “don’t know?” What do they believe is the greatest issue facing the nation: threat of a terrorist attack, the economy or illegal immigration? What’s their gender: male or female?

The poll can be completed in seconds. As soon as respondents click an answer to the last question, they see the results of all participants.

While that poll might generate quick answers for the state’s Republican Committee about the leanings of its members and other political buffs who view the site, Dick concedes it falls short of polls that include wider population samples: “Internet polling is not as diverse. Its respondents are typically younger, more educated than the population as a whole.”

But he argues it’s a way to augment phone polls — for now.

Tim Vercellotti, polling director at Rutgers University’s Eagleton Institute of Politics, said current Internet polling “is not a good methodology” because it only captures people who go to a particular Web site.” Pollsters “can’t make any inferences about a larger population.” But he sees a market for online polling when participants are recruited over the phone during random sampling.

Vercellotti also credited Civic Science with being “absolutely right that we as an industry have to think of ways to get to the cell-phone-only crowd.”

Another pollster embracing online methods is John Zogby, whose Zogby International conducts prominent political polls plus telemarketing and marketing research. Roughly a third of its $7 million in revenues last year came from online polls, he said.

Zogby said he anticipates “always having a call center. Don’t get me wrong: The telephone poll is not at a crisis stage. But it will be supplanted,” Zogby said, stressing it will be sooner rather than later. “To this new company in Pittsburgh, tell them not to get too good at it.”

(E-mail Joyce Gannon at jgannon(at)