Backstage Pass with Kristen Soltis

Real Time panelist Kristen Soltis took a moment after Friday’s show to talk to writers assistant Miles Leicher about the joys and challenges of being a pollster:

Miles Leicher: Kristen, thank you so much for coming back to the show. Nice to see you again.

Kristen Soltis: Thanks for having me!

ML: You are a pollster, which sounds like an increasingly difficult job in today's society. Why do you think that is? Why don't people want to participate in polls anymore?

KS: Well, primarily because a lot of pollsters are calling people at home, on their telephones, and especially in an election season. I mean, consider for a moment, that you are a voter in Columbus, Ohio, and it's two weeks before an election. How many people do you think are calling your phone?

ML: All the people.

KS: Robocalls, candidates trying to get out the vote -- at a certain point you just stop picking up your phone. But that’s how pollsters are trying to reach you to find out who you are voting for. So it's really complicated to be a pollster these days, because the models that have worked for decades and decades and decades aren't working anymore.

ML: And is polling important for people to find out where public opinion is headed, or is it more for candidates?

KS: Both. Externally, it's important for media organizations to have good data so they can have a sense of where the race is going. Also, there was a lot of discussion that the race was so, so, so close because a lot of public polling was showing Mitt Romney doing very well nationally. It didn't pan out quite like that. So there's that aspect, and then there's the internal stuff.

There were stories that the Romney campaign really thought -- right up until, pretty much, the hour before he conceded -- that he was gonna win. Because their polling had shown pretty optimistic stuff.

So it's very difficult. If you're a pollster, and you're not able to give accurate data to your candidate, you can't make good strategic decisions like, "okay, we’re really far down in state A, so let's move resources to state B." If you think you're doing really well in all these states and you're not, it's tough to have a good strategy in place.

ML: So Mitt Romney was probably not reading Nate Silver's blog too much…

KS: So that was a big area of disagreement, right? Why were some polls showing Obama doing so well and other polls -- or these Romney internal polls -- showing that Romney was doing so well? And it was like, "Well, we'll see on Election Day who's right." And it wound up that the Obama pollsters were right and the Republican pollsters were wrong.

And it has a lot to do, also, with not calling enough cell phones. I mean, I don't have a landline phone. Do you have a landline telephone?

ML: I do not.

KS: Well then our vote doesn't really count to a pollster who's only calling landlines.

You can also monitor things like what the conversation looks like on social media, but it's not a perfect proxy for how a vote will go.

ML: Is that where this is headed?

KS: I think that's going to become a component. I don't think that it replaces traditional polling, but I think it helps make it better. I think that the two can be used as different ways to collect information that you can use to make strategic decisions as a candidate.

ML: So you can't judge public sentiment based solely on Internet comments sections?

KS: [laughs] I do not think the Internet comments sections are an accurate representation of American public opinion. But, hey, if you're trying to figure out, "What does the base of my party think?" Or how super-engaged activists feel on an issue, maybe there is value in at least looking through comments sections.

What really matters isn't that certain types of information are better or worse; it's knowing -- what value does this actually provide? What audience am I really listening to if I’m analyzing this data?

ML: It's not an election year, so is it still interesting and exciting when there's not this horse race happening?

KS: Oh definitely. I actually think now you get to answer some of the more interesting questions because now is when governing is happening, theoretically, right?

ML: Theoretically.

KS: [laughs] Theoretically. So you'll have debates that come up in Congress -- whether it's the fiscal cliff, or now we've got the sequester, or the debt ceiling's gonna come up again -- and it's more policy-focused, I think, than the personal attributes of the candidates in play.

So when you're doing polling, you're finding out more about what people are believing on certain issues, rather than who's up or down in a political campaign today.

ML: Well that is exciting and we'll be here following it. Thanks so much for coming out.

KS: This was really fun, thanks for having me.

Kristen Soltis is a Republican pollster and Vice President at The Winston Group, a DC-based polling and consulting firm.

Miles Leicher is a writers assistant at Real Time with Bill Maher, a television show.