Spencer Kimball stands at the front of the technology lab, facing his advanced political polling class. He’s leading a discussion of the upcoming Louisiana gubernatorial election, analyzing the results from Emerson College’s poll compared to other pollsters.
“Just so you understand, it’s these folks who are going to throw polls off,” he says to his ten students, cautioning against third-party candidates like Gary Landrieu, who was defeated in the primary election October 12. Kimball is clear and direct, returning again and again to the data to back up his points.
Kimball moves constantly throughout his lecture, hands jumping with him as he speaks. Even when his arms are crossed, he’s idly tapping a pencil as he explains that President Trump visiting Louisiana before the primary election had little impact on their poll.
Kimball is an assistant professor of political and sports communication, the director of Emerson College Polling, and the advisor of the Emerson College Polling Society, run by students. He also runs a political consulting business on the side.
Kimball notes a problem getting a good sample of Louisiana voters. “We had a lot of folks; we just couldn’t get them to answer the phone.” Other pollsters had more accurate results, he explains, joking that some people were probably just sick of being called.
Kimball both explains the information and guides his students to understand their own analysis. He’s professional, yet light-hearted and charismatic. Watching him teach is like watching someone master riding a bike. Now that students have this, he says, you can say you’ve done the Louisiana governor’s race.
Polling refers exclusively to political surveys, and Emerson Polling came under the national spotlight because of projections for the 2016 presidential election. Their results predicted Donald Trump would win, unlike most polls. Trump congratulated Emerson Polling in 2015 for those predictions in his favor, bringing the pollster up from obscurity. Kimball believes the main difference between Emerson Polling and other pollsters in this case was automated data collection, which limited bias since the questions weren’t being asked by a live interviewer. In June 2018, FiveThirtyEight, an opinion poll analysis website, ranked Emerson Polling as the second most accurate pollster in the country. Politics, and polling, have only grown more contentious.
Spencer Kimball keeps up to date on what issues are important for American voters. He makes sure that polls focus on those issues so that real change can eventually be made. Kimball commits to teaching that same thoroughness to future political communicators. He’s aware of the issues that matter, and determined to see them through.
A childhood sports fan, Kimball grew up in western Massachusetts. Always interested in persuasion, he studied graduate political communication at the University of Hartford. 9/11 happened during his second class. “The first plane hits. Nobody really knows what’s happening. We’re sitting in class, and I realized that this was going to be an area I was going to work in.” Kimball thus understood that clear political communication would be most important in the years to come.
His office, next to Emerson Polling’s command center, is situated in the Massachusetts Transportation building. A large U.S. map covering the 2018 midterm elections overlooks the conference table. Emerson polled 20 different states, and the map covers all the races. Books crowd the office shelves, some arranged, others shoved in wherever they can fit.
Kimball, 43, has a noticeable western Massachusetts accent. His speech is formal and full of technical polling jargon. He dresses professionally, in a button-down shirt, dress pants and shoes, and a blue and yellow tie. His dark hair is slicked back. A jacket hangs on the back of his chair.
After studying polling at Suffolk University, Kimball began to teach research methods at Emerson and Salem State. At the same time, he worked on campaigns all around the country. “Campaign life is very intense. You’re not home, you’re on the road, you’re constantly getting yelled at, or you’re yelling, and so I was thinking—and I’d been teaching here—maybe I should do this full-time,” he explained.
Kimball spoke to several schools about running a polling program. In 2012, Emerson took him up on it. Throughout 2014 and 2015, Emerson Polling ran around three polls a year. In the fall of 2015, Kimball noticed that its polls for the 2016 presidential election showed Donald Trump doing better in comparison to other polls. That put Emerson Polling on the map.
After the election, Kimball made an effort to reach younger voters. He started to mix the traditional methodology of landline phone calls with online questions. He explained, “One thing that we’re always looking for is what’s next. What we started doing this year is using text messages to collect data.”
Polls can be tested against election results, while there isn’t any way to test survey research. So, polls are run to test the methodology, which, when used in surveys, shows them to be credible.
The Emerson Polling Society started with three students in 2013. Kimball taught them how to do a poll. He told me, “We talked to 600 people, and we were able to extrapolate what a million and a half people were thinking, how they were going to vote. That’s a very strong skill set to have, of understanding your audience.”
In 2017, Emerson Polling Society and Emerson Polling split in two because of the political intensity against the students. The society remained a student-run group, running non-political surveys, while Polling handles the political side. Kimball now says they’re trying to bring the students back in, but carefully. “They’re not there to be harassed or intimidated.”
Kimball is confident to try new things, explaining with pride how he’s renovated Emerson Polling since becoming director. He’s fast to curb whatever isn’t working, however, and seems secure about the team he works with.
Dr. Gregory Payne, chair of the communication studies department at Emerson, offered praise for Kimball. “As soon as he came on campus, I knew that he was destined—you could see the success in his aura, so to speak. We became steadfast friends. Part of it is he’s a very loyal person.”
Kimball recently worked on a poll about Arizona and Trump that Payne proofread. The president’s approval ratings are low in normally-conservative Arizona, but Kimball found opinions on impeachment to be negative there as well.
“What I find interesting about Spencer is he’s extremely driven. He is a perfectionist. He is someone who is very charismatic,” Payne explained. Payne reminds Kimball to look at the bigger picture. As a pollster, Kimball has studied local, national, and international events, including Catalan independence. “What I like about Spencer is he’s truly someone who takes it to a new level.”
Isabel Holloway, an assistant at Emerson Polling, deals with the center’s day-to-day operations. She graduated from Emerson last May, and was working in the center last year, a position allotted to her as president of Emerson Polling Society.
“He works really hard,” she said of Kimball, explaining how he constantly updated the 2018 midterm elections map to keep everything as accurate as he could. “It was just amazing to me that Emerson Polling has gone on for six years now, and really Spencer has been the one that’s keeping things moving.”
Kimball encourages his team to get involved in all aspects of survey research. With most organizations, pollsters begin by making phone calls. Holloway explained the differences when working with Kimball. “You get to help write the questions, you get to help choose what state you’re going to poll, you get to help do the analysis and try to decide how to make that into a press release, try to decide what the key takeaways from the poll are.”
A current project is for the Association for Marshall Scholars, a prestigious scholarship in the U.K. The association wanted to know whether Americans knew about Marshall scholarships, and what they thought about U.S./U.K. relations. Emerson conducted it as a non-political research study. Holloway helped write the report.
Holloway said the Polling Society improved her college learning experience. “It’s something you’re actually thinking of, rather than just you’re told to do it.”
Back in class, Kimball moves from one topic to another, always staying on track. We’re moving from the governor’s race to polling questions for the week. He wants to know what’s important in the world.
Students toss around ideas. Syria? The draft? Columbus Day?
He spends a few minutes discussing how to formulate a question on the Democratic debates. You have four options with question design, he says: you can ask people’s opinions, knowledge, frequency of something, or ratings. “Whether they watch or heard about the debates,” a student suggests. Kimball doesn’t throw any ideas out completely.
Moving from the whiteboard to the desk and back, Kimball tilts his head to the ceiling when thinking through an idea. He’s quick to remind students of the reality of certain issues (no one likes to talk about obesity), and is eager to bring in historical comparisons (a student mentions Michelle Obama’s Let’s Move! campaign).
Kimball is relaxed and reasonable with students’ questions, giving reasons why some don’t work and re-wording others.
“We’re testing these ideas,” he said in his office, “That’s what you do in the real world.”