In an extraordinary election year, the polls have been closely following the favorability ratings of the various presidential candidates. Now, as Convention season unfolds, pollsters are focusing on the presumptive nominees of the two main parties, Donald Trump for the Republicans and Hillary Clinton for the Democrats. A recent poll had Trump trailing Clinton by 5 percentage points.
UConn alumna Lydia Saad ’97 MA, senior editor and advanced consultant for the Gallup Poll, spoke at an alumni event in Washington, D.C. last month as part of a panel about the 2016 presidential campaign. She discussed recent election trends and the importance of polling in the American political process with writer Bri Diaz of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences. Saad has studied U.S. public opinion on economic, social, and political issues for more than 20 years, and has co-authored hundreds of Gallup surveys.
This article was first published on the CLAS website.
As senior editor of the Gallup Poll, you poll continuously on election issues and candidate favorability. What are some of the top campaign issues for voters during this election cycle?
We traditionally measure this by asking Americans how the candidates’ positions on a laundry list of issues will affect their vote for president. This year, the top-scoring issues are terrorism and the economy in general, closely followed by jobs, education in general, and health care. These are perennially important issues. However, the emphasis is a little different compared to recent elections. While mentions of the economy today are similar to what we found in 2012, higher percentages of voters now mention jobs, terrorism, and immigration. At the same time, the economy is not quite the dominant issue it was toward the end of the 2008 election after the financial crisis thrust it into the forefront of the campaign.
How does Gallup measure candidate favorability?
We have been following Americans’ impressions of the various candidates for almost a year on our Gallup Daily tracking poll, asking respondents to say whether they have a favorable or unfavorable impression of each candidate. We started last July with 17 Republican candidates and five Democratic candidates, and then dropped names as candidates exited the race. This allows us to isolate any time period we want for data analysis, and the large sample sizes aggregated over time allow for incredibly in-depth analysis by every subgroup you can think of.
This is your seventh presidential election at Gallup. How do the current candidates’ favorability ratings compare to those from previous presidential campaigns?
It’s true that Democrat Hillary Clinton and Republican Donald Trump are on the lower end of the popularity scale for presidential candidates. Both have had “upside down” favorable ratings, meaning they are viewed more negatively than positively, at least up until now. This is not completely without precedent. All three candidates in 1992 – George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton, and Ross Perot – had periods when their favorable rating fell to near 40 percent. However, at least for Clinton and Perot, the negative ratings were not sustained for long. Clinton and Trump are going on nearly a year of bad ratings. That’s what’s most striking about these candidates.
How did you first become interested in studying politics?
For much of my youth my family only had one TV, so I mainly watched what my parents watched, and they watched a lot of news. My favorite was “The McLaughlin Group” on Sunday mornings. “Meet the Press” was okay, but more like meat and potatoes. “The McLaughlin Group” was my dessert! Also, my father subscribed to what seemed like 100 magazines, so I absorbed a lot of information. In school, I eventually gravitated to courses that could help me better understand and make sense of the news.
Why did you decide to study at UConn, and what did you take away from the experience?
I first learned about UConn’s graduate program in political science and survey research while working at the Connecticut state capitol, and started following the UConn Poll in the Hartford Courant. I had enjoyed working with poll data in college, and was excited about the prospect of making this a career.
Right from the start, I knew I was receiving a solid foundation in the skills I needed to be successful in this field – everything from probability statistics and questionnaire design to how to access the rich archive of public opinion data through the Roper Center. The instructors were all top notch, but my classes with Burns “Bud” Roper and political science professor Everett Ladd were priceless. Bud gave us a colorful window into the practice of survey research, while Everett was a superb teacher of classical public opinion theory and data analysis. His high standards for research, analysis, and writing definitely made me a more valuable employee when I landed at Gallup.
What has changed over the past two decades about Gallup’s polling methodology?
The biggest methodological change since I started in 1992 has been the addition of cell phones to our sampling frame. Gallup was one of the first major national survey firms to include cell phones back in 2008, and we have continually increased the proportion of respondents in our sample reached on cell phones, to reflect consumers’ expanding reliance on mobile devices. While merging cell with landline interviews does increase complexity all along the production process, the benefit of reaching a truly random national sample of adults is well worth it.
Why do you think it is important to track Americans’ attitudes on political, social, and economic issues?
Our trends tell enormously important stories about what our country stands for, how people conduct their lives, and how the social fabric is both holding together and changing. Several years ago, our CEO sent out a company-wide email asking each of us to identify a recent poll finding that we thought was most important. To me it was obvious: Americans’ changing attitudes toward gay rights. At that time, the percentage in favor of gay marriage hadn’t reached a majority, but it was moving rapidly in that direction. Tracking questions like these annually allows us to see the country changing in real time.
Today, I have the privilege of writing a new feature on Gallup.com called Gallup Vault. These are very short news articles focused on poll results from decades ago. Sometimes the story is about how much things have changed, but other times it’s about how things have stayed the same. Almost as soon as the Gallup Poll began over 70 years ago, founder George Gallup recognized the power of trends; we benefit from that legacy today.