TAMPA ญญ— Tiny Saint Leo University has a big ambition.
The Catholic liberal arts school in St. Leo, north of Tampa, is starting a polling institute, hoping to build independent political polling in Florida and to raise the school’s profile across the state and nation.
“Right now there’s very little polling being done by Floridians – everybody comes into Florida to do polling,” said Andrew Gold, a business management specialist who recently joined the Saint Leo faculty and heads the new institute. “We saw that as an opportunity to come in and communicate some findings.”
Florida is the fourth most populous state, with 27 congressional districts and major influence in the outcome of presidential races.
Building a nationally known polling organization, as have schools including Connecticut’s Quinnipiac University , would take years and lots of money, Gold acknowledged.
The institute published its first poll this week, and quickly drew controversy over its methodology — the same kind of criticism lodged against some larger, more-established pollsters during the last couple of election cycles.
Republicans contended the poll, which showed Charlie Crist with a substantial lead over Gov. Rick Scott, counted too many Democrats.
Gold said the institute uses online sampling and doesn’t attempt to match its samples to the partisan breakdown in the state — techniques among rejected by some experts gaining in popularity.
The institute may change its methods as it learns, he said. “We have to walk before we can run.”
It will publish three or four polls a year on politics, public issues and cultural topics, plus possible “snap polls” on breaking news such as the selection of a new pope, he said.
If the poll succeeds, the effect on the school could be considerable.
Saint Leo, off State Road 52 just west of Dade City, has 2,200 students at its picture-postcard campus and offers off-campus classes at sites including Tampa’s Channel District. But it but isn’t known widely.
In the early 1990s, when it began polling, Quinnipiac was also a small, little-known liberal arts school. It’s now Connecticut’s largest private undergraduate school with several graduate programs and a national reputation, said Quinnipiac Polling Institute spokesman Peter Brown.
Nationwide news coverage of its polls “has helped brand the university in a positive way,” Brown said.
New York’s Marist College and New Jersey’s Monmouth University are other small schools that have raised their profiles through polling, said Cliff Zukin, former president of the American Association of Public Opinion Researchers and a survey research expert at Rutgers University in New Jersey, which also does polling.
Zukin said independent, state-level polling has declined nationwide as news organizations have left the field because of strained revenues. The Los Angeles Times, Minneapolis Star Tribune and Newark Star-Ledger are examples.
Florida has many political campaign pollsters but their results aren’t published unless they help the campaign.
“There’s not a lot of news-based or non-profit, unbiased polls here,” said Jim Kitchens, an Orlando-based pollster who works for Democratic political campaigns.
Florida, a “political linchpin state,” needs good political and issue polling, but public universities probably can’t provide it regularly because of the cost, said political scientist Matthew Binder of the University of North Florida, which does one statewide and one northwest Florida poll annually.
Republicans objected to St. Leo’s first poll because 39 percent of its respondents identified themselves as Democrats and 30 percent Republicans. Florida’s current registration is 40-35 percent Democrat to Republican.
Gold said the difference is within the poll’s five-point error margin, but also said many pollsters don’t use a “turnout model,” a sample stacked to have the same partisan breakdown as voter registration figures or the expected voter turnout.
That’s because respondents, when asked what party they’re in, may respond with their current opinions, which can change from month to month, rather than their actual registration.
“It’s always a moving target,” he said.
A sample that merely matches the state’s age, sex, race and other characteristics, with screening questions for likelihood of voting, is more accurate, he said.
Quinnipiac uses a similar technique, and often incurs the same criticism, but was one of the most accurate forecasters of Florida’s 2012 presidential results.
Partly to keep costs down, St. Leo contracts with a national survey firm that uses online sampling, a technique intended to avoid the increasing problems and costs of telephone polling.
Online polling isn’t like the ads on web sites asking viewers to click on their opinion, Gold said.
Pollsters use mass mail, phone, email or web solicitations to recruit a huge group of potential respondents, up to a million or more nationwide. For each poll, they choose a random sample from that group.
Respondents don’t get to choose the polls, which prevents “self-selection” bias, Gold said.
Citing statistics that 80-85 percent of all households have some internet access and increasing numbers have no land-line phones, he said online sampling could be the tool of the future.
It remains controversial, and some online sampling techniques are considered less reliable than others, said Michael Dimock, a researcher with the prestigious, non-profit Pew Research Institute. Most major national pollsters, including Gallup and the broadcast networks, still use random-number dialing, “the traditional gold standard,” along with cell phone sampling.
But, Dimock noted, the momentum may be toward online sampling. The Associated Press recently switched its polling to GfK Public Affairs, a leading online survey firm.