Election year keeps poll-taking firm on the line Media depend on opinions HOWARD COUNTY BUSINESS

October 15, 1992|By Adam Sachs | Adam Sachs,Staff Writer

Brad Coker figures he could feed a family of four for a year for the amount his company pays in monthly phone bills.

If so, he could probably stretch October's bill to feed a fraternity house and fill its beer kegs for a year.

Columbia-based Political Media Research Inc. will call between 400 and 800 households in each of at least 40 states this month to provide hundreds of newspapers and television stations with up-to-date opinions on elections throughout the country. The polling company has media clients in 48 states and conducts surveys for planning, lobbying, political and marketing organizations and private enterprise.

For the Nov. 3 election, Mr. Coker, the founder and president, installed 15 additional phones for interviewing. Part-time employees will work the time zones, starting east and moving west.

"We're improvising to keep up the pace and get us through the crunch," said Mr. Coker, 33, of Columbia. "At night the phones come falling out of the ceiling."

At any time over the next 2 1/2 weeks, Political Media Research, which also has offices in Washington and Miami, will be conducting polls in five to seven states to update a 50-state sweep it completed in September.

The company is tracking the presidential race, 35 U.S. Senate races, and gubernatorial contests and high-profile referendums, such as abortion in Maryland, a gay-rights issue in Oregon, a Martin Luther King holiday in Arizona and several term-limit and tax initiatives.

The company's September polls showed Gov. Bill Clinton "comfortably" picking up more than 300 electoral votes (270 are needed to win), with President Bush garnering "only 70 he can reasonably count on," said Mr. Coker.

"The others are competitive, but they're leaning more to Clinton than Bush," said Mr. Coker "Right now, it doesn't look good for Bush. Things could change, but I think the only way it would is if something comes out on Clinton that damages his character. I don't think Bush can win on the issues."

Late 1991 polls showed Mr. Bush beating all Democratic hopefuls in their home states, Mr. Coker said.

Ross Perot's re-entry had little influence in poll updates of several states, including Texas, New York and California, he said.

The economy is "the only issue" in this election, with between 50 percent and 65 percent of voters in every state citing that as the nation's chief concern, Mr. Coker said. Education and health care occasionally crack 10 percent, he said.

The Arkansas Democrat-Gazette has been one of Political Media Research's most active clients in the last year, Mr. Coker said. The newspaper subscribes to the polling company's state-by-state tracking service.

"The polls on President Bush's performance rating state-by-state are interesting," said Democrat-Gazette managing editor Bob Lutgen. "We use them as quickly as we get them. The polls are of interest in Little Rock with the huge national campaign headquarters here."

Gary Wordlaw, vice president of news at WJLA-TV in Washington, said the station chose Political Media Research over many other pollsters. "We know them and trust their work," he said. "They've always been very accurate."

The company will continue polling for the presidential race through the weekend before the election. If the race tightens, Mr. Coker said the company would focus on seven or eight key states for the final weekend.

The 9-year-old company's reputation will be on the line.

"At election time, you do want to be right. It's a little extra pressure," said Mr. Coker. "Even if you're right 99 times out of 100, the one time you're wrong you never hear the end of it."

An analysis that accompanies the polls often can explain when election results deviate from survey figures, Mr. Coker said. Often, an incumbent showing a narrow lead several days before the election will lose because undecided voters tend to support the challenger, he said.

Mr. Coker said his interest in politics influenced him to start the business in 1983. The company initially conducted polls on local

politics for Maryland newspapers, then expanded to Virginia and Florida. In 1984, it added television stations as clients. In 1988, it expanded nationwide.

It lacks media clients in only Rhode Island and Utah.

Political Media Research has about 12 full-time employees, and 60 to 70 part-time interviewers during campaign periods. Part-time interviewers and phone expenses account for about 80 percent of the company's project costs, Mr. Coker said.

The company typically charges between $5,000 and $25,000 per poll, depending on its complexity. It conducts 300 to 350 polls in a busy year.

Opinion polls on Maryland's abortion ballot question, show the election tightening, Mr. Coker said. Polls indicate a majority of Marylanders favor abortion rights, but anti-abortion forces have gained in the last month, he said. Interviewers recited the entire ballot question, and found that it confused voters.

"On Question 6, it won't say pro-choice pull here and pro-life pull here," he said. "If people don't understand it well, they tend to vote to keep the status quo and vote no."

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