The Late Show With Stephen Colbert ran a four-minute bit last month highlighting a recent poll that found a sharp division over President Obama's decision to pardon not one but two turkeys for Thanksgiving. Just 11 percent of Republicans were on board.
The organization responsible for that poll was, of course, Raleigh-based Public Policy Polling. It's not the first time the firm—founded in 2001 by Dean Debnam, most recently of DrunkTown fame—has injected some levity into its surveys. Previous polls have examined whether hipsters should be taxed for being annoying and whether Obama would be taken in the rapture. At Ann Coulter's urging, PPP also asked New Hampshire Democrats whether Christianity should be legal.
With the 2016 campaign ramping up and the Iowa caucuses and New Hampshire primary on the horizon, we called PPP director Tom Jensen to get his take on how this weird election season will play out.
INDY: PPP has carved out a niche doing serious polls with some humor thrown in. What led you down that path?
Tom Jensen: I think that American politics has gotten increasingly nasty and unpleasant over the last seven or so years, and our attitude is that it doesn't have to be so serious. Which sometimes means polling stuff that more traditional pollsters wouldn't poll. Like, this year we polled how Deez Nuts was doing in Iowa.
The other thing is, a lot of these ideas we don't come up with ourselves. We think of ourselves as a polling company of the social-media age, so before every poll we go on Facebook and Twitter and ask our followers what they want to know.
News reports often insert the phrase "left-leaning" before "PPP." Do you think being seen as a liberal pollster damages your credibility?
We're fine with the label. Even though what we're now best known for is these public polls, we're primarily a commercial business that does polls for clients. And we exclusively work for Democratic clients. But if you go back and look at our polling from 2012, you'll see that our numbers are ever-so-slightly skewed in favor of Republicans. So if you dig in, you'll see that we're really just trying to get it right.
On to Donald Trump. You guys have been tracking Trump's Islamophobia for months now. Do you have any particular insight here?
I still think once it's time to vote, some Trump supporters will be like, "Eh, I'm not so sure this is a great idea." But as long as we're still several months away, I don't think there's much he could say that will cut into his support.
Do you think these xenophobic positions that Trump supporters appear to embrace have always been around in such large numbers? Or do you think Trump is changing minds by stoking this stuff at rallies?
That's a good question. I think it's a combination. When you go back, what launched Trump politically is his birtherism, his challenging Obama's status as a real American. Even before Trump, we were finding that this was a view held by a lot of Republicans, the birtherism. And Trump built on that.
But I also think that, to some extent, what we are seeing with Trump now is a cult-like aspect among his supporters, where pretty much no matter what he says some people are going to enthusiastically agree. For example, I don't think 42 percent of Trump supporters were walking around mad that Arabs in New Jersey supposedly cheered about 9/11. They may have been inclined to think that happened before Trump, but certainly Trump saying it leads them to believing it and agreeing with it.
Is it possible that Trump polls well because the only people who answer their landlines are old people with nothing better to do?
Well, first of all, the polls are weighted for gender, race and age, so that's taken into account. I would maybe tend to agree with what you said if it weren't for the fact that Trump actually has stronger support in Internet polls than telephone polls. That's an interesting thing about this election, actually: It's the first where online polls are part of the package. Polling organizations that might have thumbed their nose at online polls four years ago are using them this election. So 2016 will be the first test of online polls in a national election.
What are the biggest challenges of polling in 2016?
The challenges for the polling industry are about the same as they've been the last five or 10 years, but they are getting more challenging. A generation ago, 30 or 40 percent of people responded to polls. Now it's more like 5 percent—19 out of 20 people don't respond. That's partly because of landlines but also because people have so many more distractions. If you were sitting at home 15 years ago watching Wheel of Fortune, maybe answering a poll might have seemed more interesting than the show. That's not as likely to be true today.
The North Carolina governor's race: What are you seeing?
We've consistently found that to be a toss-up race. [Gov. Pat] McCory is unpopular, but despite 15 years as the attorney general, [Roy] Cooper is still pretty unknown. Fifty percent of voters aren't familiar with Roy Cooper's name. So you have a situation where voters are open to the thought of replacing McCory but don't know Cooper well enough yet.
In terms of the presidential race, what's surprised you most in recent months?
I think the most interesting thing right now is the utter failure of Jeb as a candidate. And it's not just that people don't support him. It's also that primary voters—nationally and here in North Carolina—actually have a negative opinion of him. I find it somewhat amazing just how weak he has been, especially since his brother is very popular. George W. Bush is around 80 percent in terms of [Republicans] liking him. Jeb is down between 30 and 40 percent.
The rise of Cruz is significant. At this point, he has completely supplanted [Ben] Carson for next-in-line honors behind Trump. He's a super-conservative candidate that is a little easier to see as the nominee—a politician in a slightly more traditional package than Trump, a little less inflammatory. If Trump falls apart, Cruz is very well positioned to pick up Trump voters.
I think it's also important to remember that this month four years ago, Newt Gingrich was up on Romney nationally, and by 37 points in North Carolina.
So obviously things are very much up in the air.
This article appeared in print with the headline "Poll position"