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Primary Puts National Spotlight on UNH Survey Center

Visit the UNH Survey Center during the rush up to New Hampshire's first-in-the-nation presidential primary and you'll discover one key reason its surveys are considered to be among the most reliable, accurate, and widely cited in the nation.

Of course, it helps that its surveys are researched and designed by a veteran team led by Andy Smith, the center's director, an associate professor of political science, and an oft-quoted pundit on public opinion and politics. And as the media frenzy builds around the January 10 primary, requests by national and international media for interviews about the center's work are nearly nonstop.

Survey Center But for the secret to the center's success, you have to start with a busy night at its calling center.

Student Callers Boost Results

In the basement of Huddleston Hall, 24 UNH students sit side by side at computerized calling stations, dialing up to 60 calls in a four-hour shift, and seeking insights into people's most personal political views. Here is where the science of surveys meets the art of successful survey-taking.

"You get to be a really good read of people," says Kristin Therrien, a UNH sophomore majoring in mechanical engineering. "And you learn to be as personable as possible. There's kind of an art to getting it all right."

survey center workerSmith says the UNH Survey Center has built its national reputation by enlisting the help of outstanding student interviewers and graduate student staffers. Paid for their work and carefully trained, they pride themselves on being some of the most polite, professional, and successful in the business.

"I think a big thing is to listen to people and be patient," Therrien says. "It's hard enough to get people to answer the phone for you, so you want to show them that you genuinely appreciate and respect where they're coming from."

The result of all that courtesy: The UNH Survey Center's callers draw a high rate of responses when they dial, and the outcome is considered far more reliable than surveys taken by automated "robo-calling" centers.

Add the experience of Smith and four researchers on the staff, and its survey results are highly anticipated by political pundits and campaigns.

A recent case in point is a poll the center conducted for WMUR and released on Nov. 23. The survey of 413 Republicans and independents who will likely vote in the primary showed 42 percent support former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, with former U.S. House Speaker Newt Gingrich moving up into second place. Within a few days, the results and analysis by Smith and Dante Scala, associate professor of political science, were cited in more than 1,000 news stories, including NBC Nightly News, MSNBC, National Public Radio, CNN, and the Associated Press.

Projects Assist Business, Communities

For all the media attention the center brings to UNH during elections, political surveys account for less than 20 percent of its annual work.

However, Smith credits the center's political projects for drawing interest to the quality of its general survey work, which is sought by an increasingly diverse variety of businesses, nonprofits, communities, and government agencies. Its client list has grown steadily as well, from 60 during the 2004-2005 school year to 88 in 2010-2011.

Its ongoing projects also include the Granite State Poll, an omnibus survey of New Hampshire adults on a wide range of public policy issues conducted quarterly since 2001, and statewide surveys on seatbelt use, residential rental trends, services for the elderly, and middle school drug and alcohol use trends.

"A lot of people assume we only do political work, because that's what they see in the media," Smith says. "But they'd be surprised to see how much work we do for external clients."

Last year, 49 of its projects were for external clients, including a commercial airline pilot's union, FedEx, the Society for the Protection of New Hampshire Forests, Dartmouth Medical School, the State of New Hampshire, and several New Hampshire cities and towns. An additional 39 surveys were for UNH faculty, researchers, and administrators.

"It's really interesting work because of all the people we get to interview," says Amanda Mead, a junior from Mont Vernon, N.H., who's studying psychology. "I've talked with people in Alaska, Washington, Oregon, and all over New Hampshire. It really lets you hear so many different perspectives."

The center's fee-for-service structure has also proven profitable for UNH. Last year, its total revenues were $837,880, and it generated a surplus of $13,158. About $250,000 of those revenues went directly to pay the salaries of 167 UNH students who worked at the center, including 79 who participated in the federal work-study program.

"It's one of the best jobs they can have on campus," Smith says. "The hours are flexible, it's a great learning environment, and they can gain a lot of great experience here."

Like many students working at the center, Erin Baxter, a sophomore from Plymouth, Mass., initially sought a work-study position there because of the flexibility and work environment. Over the past two years, however, she's become fascinated with its projects.

"Now I see how important this kind of work is," says Baxter, who's studying communications. "It makes me much more aware of how people come to different perspectives on really important issues."

Building Social Intelligence

Back in the calling center, students hunker down at the small calling station cubicles each night during major surveys.

Therrien says the job demands careful attention to questions, top-notch interpersonal skills on the phone, and an ability to block out distractions as two dozen other students make calls and conduct interviews.

"It can get crazy busy in here, but you have to get to a point where you're just focused on the job and the person you're interviewing and block everything else out," says Therrien, who grew up in Lewiston, Maine, and is a member of the UNH ROTC program. "You get used to it."

Of the 50 to 60 calls she might make during a shift, Therrien is satisfied if she finds four people who are willing to complete a 15- to 20-minute survey, and she understands that keeping them on the line for the entire survey requires keen people-reading skills.

Such skills, she says, will be an asset when she moves into the military and a career. "It helps a lot with your confidence and with reading people," Therrien says. "It helps you be more comfortable talking with all kinds of people. When you do the interviews and really listen to what people are saying, you get a higher tolerance for where people are coming from."

Of course, even the most courteous survey takers encounter routine hang-ups, rude answers, and the occasional rambling and irate lecture about subjects that stray far from the survey questions. "If you're genuinely kind and courteous, most people are really nice," Therrien says. "But if they're out of line, I know I can push 'end' and the call will be over."

 —Jim Graham

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