Monmouth University Pollster Patrick Murray is Making Numbers Meaningful

Pollster Patrick Murray earned a reputation for his dead-on projections. Then came the 2016 presidential election, when most polls missed the mark. Here’s what he learned—and how polling has changed.

Monmouth University pollster Patrick Murray describes Donald Trump’s election as a “wake-up call” for polling professionals.
Monmouth University pollster Patrick Murray describes Donald Trump’s election as a “wake-up call” for polling professionals.
Photo by Justin Borucki

Patrick Murray has a few questions for you. He wants to cold-call you one evening—well, not he personally, but the telephone pollsters who call the people he tells them to call. He wants them to find out what you plan to do when you close the curtain behind you on the most secret and sacred space in democracy. He wants to know whom you’re going to vote for.

But what will you say? Will you tell a stranger what you might not even tell a friend? Or will you, like 9 out of 10 people, just ignore him completely—as if he were pitching Florida timeshares?

“Why are we doing this?” he asks rhetorically in his office at Monmouth University, where he looks out onto Wilson Hall, named for a president (and former New Jersey governor) elected long before daily tracking polls. “We should be doing it not to predict an outcome, but to tell a story about why things are going in the direction that they’re going.”

Predictions, though, are what everyone wants—from the national media down to the voters who may or may not answer the phone when Murray’s people call. And predictions are what pollsters are judged by. Murray of late has been judged very highly.

“The best of these pollsters over this period has been Monmouth University,” Nate Silver wrote in May when his website, FiveThirtyEight, rated 396 polls. The Monmouth University Poll was one of just six to earn an A+ rating; it had also earned an A+ in FiveThirtyEight’s previous ratings in 2016. “That’s not a huge surprise,” wrote Silver. “Monmouth was already one of our highest-rated pollsters.”

Murray has been putting his ear to the tracks for a quarter of a century now, trying to hear the rumble of oncoming trains. Long a ubiquitous, incisive and reliable explainer of New Jersey politics and policy, he started moving onto the national stage—and gaining a national reputation—in the 2012 elections. In 2016, he put together a particularly good streak in the presidential primary season.

“An A+ rating doesn’t mean you get everything right,” says Murray. “It’s like an on-base percentage. The best batter in baseball still ends up heading back to the dugout more often than he gets on base.”

And sometimes, the train rounds the bend so fast that it flattens even the best pollsters.

The son and grandson of pressmen at the Philadelphia Bulletin, Murray, 53, grew up in Glendora in Camden County, in a postwar subdivision down the street from a farmhouse built before the Revolution. He often visited the nearby Red Bank Battlefield Park on the Delaware River and went into Philadelphia to tour Independence Hall.

“I’ve always been interested in how this great American experiment came to be,” he says. “It was the juxtaposition of what these great founders did in Philadelphia, and then all the people who lived in the battle zone and what they had to deal with—my neighbors from 200 years before.”

In Catholic grammar school and high school, he was often a year ahead in math. He went to Lafayette College in Easton, Pennsylvania, thinking he might become an engineer, but politics proved more interesting. On election day 1992, he was sitting amid stacks of books, studying for his oral exam for a doctorate in political science at Rutgers with intentions of starting a teaching career, while he watched the returns. “That’s when I knew I really didn’t want to be a political scientist,” he says. “The exam was scheduled for the day after the election, because apparently the calendar of actual politics has no interest for political scientists.”

He passed the exam but never finished his dissertation, diverting instead into a job at the Eagleton Poll at Rutgers, where he stayed for more than a decade. “He’s really a bug about New Jersey,” Cliff Zukin says of his former student. Zukin is the eminent Rutgers professor and public-opinion researcher who has been director of the poll since 1979 and has trained a host of pollsters now embedded in the national media. “He’s a native, not transplanted, and he’s fascinated with the state.”

When Monmouth University wanted to get into the polling business in 2005, Zukin told them how to do it and recruited Murray to run the operation. “At small schools, the idea is to use the poll as a loss leader for visibility for the institution,” Zukin says. Hire good pollsters, then watch them and their numbers flash across screens, emblazoned with your name. Quinnipiac, Siena, Marist, Fairleigh Dickinson—all have followed this playbook.

“I think there was a question: Is there room here for another? And he made room for it,” says Steve Kornacki, a national political correspondent for NBC News who was a young reporter for PoliticsNJ.com (now PolitickerNJ.com) when he called Murray for some insight into the 2003 state legislative elections. Governor Jim McGreevey had been in office for two years, and the prevailing wisdom was that Republicans would gain seats. Murray’s polling numbers disagreed. “It was sort of an against-the-grain assessment of the race, and it was prescient,” says Kornacki. “The Democrats ended up picking up seats. In my mind I filed that away—that when this guy makes an assessment and has some analysis, I want to listen to it, and I’m going to take it really seriously.”

Murray became a familiar television face in political coverage and a go-to quotemeister for reporters. He also became an occasional target for Chris Christie, who loudly disagreed with some of Murray’s polls, both as governor and presidential candidate. “He’s called me out a few times,” Murray says. “There’s no question we owe a lot to Chris Christie here at the Monmouth Polling Institute. He helped to juice our numbers a little bit when he didn’t have to.”

Murray lives with his wife and two daughters in Somerset, where he is an unaffiliated voter. “My ballots typically look like Swiss cheese, meaning that I vote all over the place,” he says.

He ventured outside New Jersey in 2010 to poll a few House and Senate races in the Northeast, then did some national polling in 2012 and a few more Senate races in 2014. What put him on a bigger stage was the presidential primary season that started in 2015.

“He has maintained a standard of accuracy that is not only dead on the mark in New Jersey, but he’s also managed to expand that nationally,” says another stalwart of the New Jersey commentariat, Brigid Harrison, a professor of political science at Montclair State University who also happened to be a first-grade classmate of Murray’s at St. Teresa School in Runnemede.

Murray did in Iowa and New Hampshire what he does in New Jersey—visit popular public meeting spaces specific to the area (in New Jersey, he goes to diners) to hear what people are talking about and infer the underlying mood. This “qualitative research” helps him formulate polling questions based on demographics and geographic locations.

“I try to ask poll questions that reflect the way that people talk about these things in their day-to-day life,” he says. “When you sit in a diner and eavesdrop, you hear people talk about things in ways that you wouldn’t hear academics or politicians talk.”

His primary polling earned him that first A+ rating from FiveThirtyEight. But then came all the polls, his included, that seemed to anoint Hillary Clinton as the next president.

“The problem with polling elections is that we don’t know who the electorate is until after they actually vote, so we’re trying to predict that by creating models,” he says. “The models are all predictions, and predictions are based on assumptions of unknowns, and that’s a violation of what probability sampling is all about.”

Add to that the spread of cellphones and the declining response rate—from 80 percent when Murray started in polling to less than 10 percent now—and you have the makings of what Zukin called a “near crisis” in a New York Times opinion piece in 2015. “Polls and pollsters are going to be less reliable,” he wrote. “We may not even know when we are off base. What this means for 2016 is anybody’s guess.”

What it meant was that the polls got the national vote right (Clinton winning by two points), but the key state polls wrong. In Pennsylvania, for instance, Murray’s polls “were dead-on in Eastern Pennsylvania and the Pittsburgh suburbs,” he says, but in the rural center of the state failed to capture “historically blue-collar Democratic voters who were voting for Donald Trump and apparently didn’t talk to pollsters.”

Pennsylvania’s electoral votes went to a Republican presidential candidate for the first time since 1988, and Murray, who had been analyzing results for NBC in New York, returned late on election night to his hotel, the New York Hilton in Midtown, where Donald Trump had his victory party. “It was a real wake-up call,” he says. “There’s a lot more art now than science in it. Our standard public-interest polling methodology is fairly sound. But with election polling we’re using a hammer to try to put in a screw.”

Murray has developed some new sampling models and is polling some key House races for the 2018 midterm elections. “The winds so far still favor the Democrats, but we’re not sure by how much,” he says.

But most of Monmouth’s polls since the 2016 election—about four per month—have asked people not how they will vote, but what they think about broader issues (health care, for instance, or immigration), which Murray regards as the higher purpose of the whole enterprise. “I think my job is to have the voice of the people at the table when decisions are being made,” he says. “It goes back to that whole Revolutionary War thing, thinking of putting the two together—the leaders and the people who had to deal with the decisions that they made. Somebody needs to feed back to the leaders what those people are feeling.”

He was particularly troubled by what people were feeling in Monmouth’s recent polls about so-called fake news. “What we’re finding is that the public just disbelieves everything that they’re seeing,” he says. “Not only do they think that fake news is planted, but that people who run media operations are making editorial decisions that falsify information.”

Which led him back to the Revolution again for another parallel—the British attempt to undermine the Colonial economy by flooding the market with counterfeit Continental currency. “It’s counterfeit currency,” he says, “and it could bankrupt our democracy.”

Kevin Coyne is a frequent contributor to New Jersey Monthly.

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