A March 2001 Quinnipiac University poll found that 87 percent of New York state voters supported a ban on using handheld cell phones while driving.
A few months later, New York became the first state to pass legislation banning the use of a handheld cell phone while behind the wheel.
Though the poll can’t take all the credit for the passing of the cell phone bill, the QU survey was still one of the factors that led to the new legislation, said Doug Schwartz, director of the Quinnipiac University poll.
A New York Times article published June 26, 2001, agreed, saying that the “bill got an extra boost” from the results of the poll.
And since 2001, seven states – including Connecticut – have followed in New York’s footsteps, prohibiting handheld cell phone use while driving, according to the Governors Highway Safety Association.
“Poll results play a critical role in the political arena,” said Chuck Swirsky, campaign manager for Congresswoman Rosa DeLauro. “They are a great way for elected officials and candidates to get a clear picture of how the public feels about the issues.”
The Quinnipiac poll started in 1988 by a marketing research professor, according to Schwartz. It now releases about 100 polls each year. The independent, school-funded survey uses 300 to 400 part-time interviewers, half of which are Quinnipiac students during the academic year, he said.
“A poll is the most accurate way to measure public opinion,” said Schwartz. “[And] elected officials want to know what issues are most important to voters.”
One issue closer to home – because of the Cheshire home invasion murders and ongoing trial – is whether the death penalty should be abolished. One of the two defendants, Steven Hayes, was sentenced to death last year and the trial of the second defendant, Joshua Komisarjevsky, is scheduled to start in September.
Connecticut came close to repealing the death penalty until the testimony of Dr. William Petit, the husband and father of the three victims, to withdraw her support of the bill.
Also playing a factor in the decision? A Quinnipiac poll finding 67 percent of Connecticut voters in favor of the death penalty, said Jim Shay, assistant managing editor of the Connecticut Post.
“I’m not saying the poll was a major factor but it played a part,” he said. “It gave legislators pause.”
Shay said it was “an element of the story” that the Post published about the death penalty repeal's failure to pass.
The death penalty poll surveyed 1,693 registered Connecticut voters and had a margin of error of plus or minus 2.4 percentage points.
Over the years of its existence, the Quinnipiac poll has been lauded as one of the most accurate polls in the nation. Nate Silver, a New York Times blogger, called the Quinnipiac polling firm the “most accurate survey” when reporting figures for the 2010 Senate and gubernatorial races. The Quinnipiac poll “missed the final margin between the candidates by 3.3 points” and “showed little overall bias,” according to the blog post.
Schwartz said there are many factors in obtaining an accurate sample. First, it’s crucial to have a large random sample. In order to have a margin of error of plus or minus 3 percentage points, about a thousand people need to be polled, he said. It’s also important to avoid shortcuts, like using a phone book that excludes unlisted numbers, said Schwartz.
The Quinnipiac poll uses a “random digital dialing” system that has a computer generate phone numbers, which includes unlisted and cell phones.
Another strength to the system: Interviewers call a telephone number four times before giving up on the potential respondent. With the 2012 elections approaching, it looks like QU pollers will be busy making calls.