A day at the polls…

By on February 14, 2007

“No ma’am, I promise I’m not trying to sell you anything. I’m from the Quinnipiac University Polling Institute. That’s right the Quinnipiac University Poll, we take surveys, would you…um are you sure it’ll just take one *click*”. One call down, about 200 to go. This conversation was the story of my life while I worked at the Quinnipiac University Polling Institute.

The Quinnipiac University Polling Institute is located in a modest white house on New Road. It was a small addition to the school that put Quinnipiac University on the map. Known as the most reliable source for national censuses on most any given election, one would think that the poll would be as busy and bustling as the newsroom at the New York Times. Think again, listen to my story and heed my warning.

It’s 5:45 on Friday afternoon. As I walk across campus toward the polling institute, my once cheerful and chipper mood is drained from my body. I feel myself becoming worn and tired just thinking of sitting at my station for four hours. Walking through the door of the polling institute, all I see is shades of gray and white. White walls and rows of tiny gray cubicles, just large enough for a chair, a computer and a telephone. The walls are covered with articles about the success of the poll, the call counter, which keeps track of the number of successful interviews conducted, yet never seems to change, and various political cartoons and bits of office humor only found amusing by those who have let this place consume them.

One would think that such a recognized and respected poll in the nation would be staffed by young future politicians and journalists. Instead, the average employee at the polling institute is a disinterested student who has about as much an idea about the politics in New York as they do about astrophysics. The other half is either local Hamden residents who work a second night job or older retired people looking for something to do with their time.

After wasting the first five minutes of work staring at the schedule, I finally make it to my desk. I put on the headset that has been worn by hundreds of pollsters before me, cringing when I imagine the number of coughs and sneezes that it has endured. I log into the computer system, and begin to make my phone calls. “*Ring, ring* click. *Ring, ring* click.” The thing people don’t understand about polling is that you spend more time listening to phones ring than you do talking to people. Eventually, my mind completely blocks out the ringing sound and I find myself in an almost meditative state. This leaves me very surprised when I finally get a person on the phone.

“Uh, hi, this is Marc calling from the Quinnipiac University Poll…”


“Marc, ma’am, I’m calling from the QU poll. We’re doing a survey about issues in the news.”

“What issues? I’m too old to help.”

I’ve heard this a million times. Everyone has a reason why they can’t talk on the phone. Either they’re too old, too young, too busy, too lazy, too smart, too dumb, too black or too white. If you can think of an excuse, I’ve heard it before. After several more phone calls go like this one, I decide it’s time for me to begin my “break” ritual.

This is a routine I’ve created, developed and mastered that helps pass time, break the monotony, and help me to maintain my sanity. If I get up from my desk and walk slowly to the water fountain, get a drink and walk back, it takes approximately three minutes. This process can be repeated about three times a night without appearing obvious.

As the night reaches its halfway point at about seven o’clock, I once again begin to do my phone calls unconsciously. Then it happens: I get a caller who’s actually willing to talk to me. But talking to a person and completing an interview are two very different things. Far more people are willing to talk your ear off about why they shouldn’t take the interview than there are people who will. I would rather not talk to a single person because doing so can be about as painful as diving into an empty pool, only to find that the bottom is covered with thumbtacks. I knew from the start that this was going to be one of those phone calls.

After a few rings, the voice of a frail old woman speaks up. It is clear from the start that she has no interest in taking the survey. She lectures me for picking on an old woman, and as I’m about to hang up, she begins to cry. Reluctantly, I stay on the phone as she begins to tell me a sad story of a neighborhood going to shambles. She tells me a friend of hers was shot outside of her apartment building. The market across the street had recently been robbed, and she had lost her husband about a month earlier. After 10 minutes of listening I tell her that I have to hang up. Calls like this were not mentioned or covered in the institute’s training course.

More time passes, more calls go uncompleted. I begin to entertain myself by changing my name every other call. To this day, there are people out there who believe the polling institute has employees named Elvis, Voltron and Alazar.

It’s now beginning to get late. I have 45 minutes of work left and still have not completed a single interview. For a pollster, getting a completed interview is like winning a game show. Just getting on the show is difficult enough. If you manage to get a potential poll taker to the first step of the process, confirming his or her age and date of birth, you are still not guaranteed an interview. You must move through the questions quickly, even if the poll taker has difficulty understanding. For some of those surveyed, answering a question with four potential responses can be as difficult as solving pi. This can sometimes cause the poll taker to become frustrated and hang up the phone. Game over. If the poll taker answers all the survey questions but then refuses to give out the much needed demographic information, you lose. It’s a game that must be played tactfully, making sure the person on the phone feels important and safe. A sigh, cough or aggravated tone from the pollster can be enough to scare away a potential survey completion. Fortunately for me, I’m a veteran of this game and when necessary, I know how to get an interview done.

The next call I make is answered by a woman. She sounds friendly, and lets me complete my introduction. Good sign. She then allows me to make sure she is qualified, and allows me to begin the survey. Sounding unsurprised by her willingness to take the survey, I move through the questions at a relatively quick pace, and she doesn’t even disagree when it comes time to ask her age, location, and financial status. Mission accomplished. Grand prize: one completed survey.

One survey is all you need to have successfully done your job at the polling institute, and with this one out of the way, and a half hour of work left to go, I’m able to rest knowing that I’ve done my part. A job well done.

At this time I am no longer an employee at the Quinnipiac University Poll. In my time there I had gone beyond being just a pollster and had taken on the role of Quinnipiac spokesperson, grief counselor and verbal punching bag. The long hours broken up by brief interludes of painful conversation had begun to wear on my well-being and I decided to retire while I still have a full head of hair. I’ll never forget the time I spent as an employee of the finest center of public opinion gathering, and will always remember these stories with the fondness that only time can create.

* Pen name


About Marc McGreen