You’re having dinner on a Wednesday night — or at least trying to — when the telephone rings. And it isn’t your best friend. It’s some guy who wants to know what you think about Barack Obama.

Despite the instinct to hang up, a great many people will talk to the pollster on the other end. But most probably will never stop to consider the true impact of their answers. The way you feel about Obama, or Pepsi, or gas prices is part of a vast and powerful marketing resource, and your thoughts could actually change the focus of a political or commercial campaign.

They might even end up on CNN, which is likely if your dinnertime caller works for Opinion Research Corporation. Born in Princeton 70 years ago this month, and recently expanded from College Road East to 902 Carnegie Center, ORC has built itself from a small, unprofitable research company into one of the most trusted and successful firms in the opinion industry. So trusted, in fact, that every major poll you see and hear being reported by CNN, the all-news cable television network, is conducted by ORC.

When Jeff Resnick, president of the U.S. group of Opinion Research, joined the firm in 1984 ORC was a modest $10 million company that never made a profit. “We were owned by Arthur D. Little at the time,” says Resnick — who back then was calling people as an ORC interviewer. Little, founded in 1886 and today one of the world’s largest management consulting firms, was still a public company in 1984. “They believed in us and financed us,” Resnick says. And they had the money to keep ORC afloat.

But in 1989 Arthur D. Little divested its “non-core” businesses — like market research — and went back to being a private company. ORC did a management buyout from Little, took itself public, and got listed on the NASDAQ index in the early 1990s. Over the following decade and a half, ORC grew into a $180 million enterprise — a value helped significantly by the $134 million acquisition by InfoUSA in November, 2006. Now called InfoGroup, ORC’s parent company is the country’s largest provider of business and consumer information products, database marketing services, and data processing services.

Resnick says the deal has immeasurably helped both companies — InfoGroup provides stability and depth to ORC and ORC provides InfoGroup the means with which to translate data and information to clients.

ORC was founded on October 25, 1938, by Claude Robinson, an innovator of public relations science, presidential pollster, and compatriot of fellow Princetonian and polling pioneer George Gallup. The pair formed Gallup and Robinson (which still has offices in Pennington) in 1948 and became giants in the field while both men’s original companies prospered.

Opinion Research today maintains its Princeton roots, only now it enjoys a considerably larger scope, with operations in Asia and Europe. And it holds a rare distinction among the major players of the industry — it operates two call centers on American soil. The largest, in Tucson, Arizona, employs 175 while its Reno, Nevada, counterpart employs 75. Companywide, ORC has about 1,000 interview stations around the world, Resnick says.

With so many call stations working so many hours over so many years, it almost seems impossible to think that Opinion Research has not at least dialed every phone number. But as with every other avenue of the industry, how ORC conducts its business is more complicated than simply picking up the phone.

For starters, there’s the company’s “Do Not Call” list. This is not the same as the federal list introduced in 2003. That list applies only to telemarketers; polling and market research companies are exempt. Rather, ORC’s version is a self-crafted database, added to every time someone tells the company not to contact them anymore.

For those not on the list, there are other matters to contend with. Like cell phones.

As the number of cell phones grows so does the number of households that are ditching landlines in favor of them. While that number is still relatively small — 15 percent of households in the country are cell-only — it is on the rise, and the overall number translates into nearly 7 million households.

The reason this is an issue is simple — cell phone polling is far more expensive and time-consuming than dialing landlines. For one thing, cell phone numbers, by law, are not allowed to be programed into any sort of auto-dial. Also, “There are more questions,” Resnick says. “The first one we have to ask is, ‘Are you currently driving?’” If the answer is yes, the interviewer must immediately hang up, meaning that yet another potential source of insight is lost. Cell plans can vary widely as well, meaning some people are charged for using minutes.

More than anything, cell phones highlight the ambiguity of new technologies within the opinion industry. Cells are still considered relatively new here, and newness brings its own set of troubles. “Just because it’s a new technology doesn’t mean it’s good,” Resnick says.

The Internet, for example, offers a number of challenges to accurate polling. It is easy for anyone with a website to construct a poll about anything. All it takes is a question and a couple of hot buttons. Resnick says that those polls lacking scientific rigor — known in the parlance as convenience polls — are not necessarily a bad thing. A magazine website asking for input about hot celebrities or baseball salaries can offer some insight into how fans feel, but such polls cannot be confused with those conducted under intense scientific strictures.

Part of the science is in the safeguards; those methods companies like ORC use to ensure the 500 yes votes do not simply come from one guy clicking the yes button 500 times. “All the majors have all sorts of security measures built in,” Resnick says. Unique online IDs, where voters are tracked and allowed only one vote, are among the most popular. There are also invitation-only polls that polling agencies open only to a select group.

But lest this sound like setting up a hotline, Resnick says, “We’re not ‘American Idol’ where you can just dial in. CASRO (the Council of American Survey Research Organizations), of which we are a founding member, has discussed and debated guidelines for proper protocol for years.”

Technology can also be mysterious and filled with promise, Resnick says. While mobile technology is ubiquitous, getting through the maze can be tricky. “We’re always experimenting with innovative ways to do research,” Resnick says, “and we’re looking at mobile platforms right now. Text messaging is certainly a common form of communication, particularly among the younger set.”

Mobile network polling, he says, is especially valuable for gauging immediate reactions to an event or experience. The problem is that doing full surveys can be tough, given texting rates and the steps involved in responding.

A major area of interest for Opinion Research right now is online social networking. “Social networking is a big issue,” Resnick says. “The challenge is being able to tap into the dialogue.”

Social networks like FaceBook and MySpace are vast resources of people, but they are also cliquey. Members and groups are drawn together by common threads — hobbies, geography, bands they like. These networks are relationships built on trust and the members are militant about self-policing. “They’ll kick you right out,” Resnick says. “The question is how to establish credibility in order to be an invited member rather than an intruder. It’s something we need to deal with and we’re just starting to experiment.”

Technology is friendly too, of course. For example, when any of those calls are made, no one has actually dialed. Computers do that — and not because it saves undue wear on employee fingertips, but because it’s part of the science.

The science of opinion polling is part statistical mathematics, part psychology, and part journalism. It is the journalism part that is the main reason behind what is known as random digital dialing, or RDD. Coined by CASRO, the industry’s main oversight agency, RDD is how companies like Opinion Research, Gallup, or even Quinnipiac University ensure that they cull answers from a broad spectrum of people.

Computers program the area and prefix codes for numbers in a region and then randomly select the last four digits. The method allows the company to target a region without letting people, consciously or not, zero in on a particular type of area or neighborhood and, thus, skewing the results.

Barack Obama, for example, enjoys huge popularity among blacks. If our fictional dinnertime caller targeted only predominantly black areas with his question it would seem as if the senator were significantly further ahead in this year’s presidential race than he really is.

Oh, and the reason you get those calls in the evening? You are more likely to get a woman on the phone if you call residences between 9 a.m. and 5 p.m. on weekdays.

More than anything, says Resnick, reputable market and opinion research companies want to be — and be perceived as — objective. “Journalism is a great parallel,” Resnick says. His industry’s bread and butter lies in how believable its results are.

And they are not to be confused with exit polls, which have had their share of infamous fiascoes — “Dewey Defeats Truman” and the too-early call that Al Gore won Florida over George W. Bush in 2000 are two noteworthy examples. Opinion polls ideally offer an up-to-the-moment snapshot of how the country feels about a given topic or candidate. Strict objectivity and a tremendous amount of trust must be part of the very DNA of every poll, every time.

As in journalism, the weight of the public’s trust in research polls is heavy and easily knocked off balance, Resnick says. And once that trust is lost it is nearly impossible to get back. This is why Resnick cringes when mistakes like “Dewey Defeats Truman” happen.

To Resnick, such blunders cause the public to associate all pollsters with those that are at best merely careless, or at worst deceitful. An important point survey companies try to impress is that they do not sell anything. Some companies, however, call start out conducting a survey and end up asking for a credit card number.

“I really hate it when I see these pseudo-scientific polls,” Resnick says. “CASRO is very vocal against telemarketers asking questions as if they’re doing market research and then trying to sell you something.”

Maintaining trust, especially in the face of believable impostors is hard enough, but is necessary. It is especially important with CNN, Resnick says, since the news agency is trying its best to be as objective as possible with its political news.

But CNN and Opinion Research must contend with some sober realities. There is no shortage of polls — many from credible sources like Harris and Harvard — claiming that half the people in the United States simply do not believe what they find in the press, and, by extension, do not have faith in the polls used by news outlets. Testaments to these attitudes are strewn across the Internet, in close proximity to websites that decry the bias of political polls (though the latter are split fairly evenly among those who think polls lean left and those who think polls lean right).

As with any endeavor that seeks to quantify thoughts and extrapolate usable data from the numbers, polling’s reputation relies heavily on how the industry conducts itself. How questions are asked, tone of voice, even the state of mind of the interviewer can all affect the outcome of a poll. Resnick says Opinion Research’s call centers are stocked with highly-trained interviewers and supervisors who listen in to make sure everything is on the up-and-up. “We never find anything really insidious,” he says.

This is where the psychology comes in. ORC conducts research online, by phone, and in-person — the last being the favored method, Resnick says, because “there’s a lot of value to be added by reading someone’s body language.” But face-to-face interviews are a luxury reserved for ORC’s corporate and commercial surveys. Political polls are only done over the phone, meaning that the psychology lies entirely on what ORC asks and how it phrases the questions.

Much of what happens is the projection of perspectives. Particularly if the survey concerns a sensitive or controversial subject, pollsters will ask not just how individuals think, but how they perceive their own area. Getting back to our dinnertime phone call about Obama, the question might be about his race. “We might ask, ‘Would you vote for a candidate simply because he is African-American?’” Resnick says. “Then we would offer the choices, ‘Yes I would’ or ‘No I would not.’” From here, the interviewer adds a few words to the beginning of that sentence: “Do you think your neighbors would vote …?”

Pay close attention to how the lead question is phrased. Does it sound dismissive? Does it sound positive? Depending on how it is asked live it could go either way, which is why there will always be more than one question and more than one version of the question. By the end of the interview, the goal is to have given an interview subject equal opportunity to be pro or con.

Responses and questions are studied to make sure the question was not leading or biased in any way. “Sometimes when you look at the contrasts you can start to pick up the issues,” Resnick says. It is a process that still fascinates and surprises him even after 24 years.

Psychology is familiar to Resnick — he earned his bachelor’s degree in psychology from Penn State in 1978. Choosing not to follow in his father’s footsteps — he was an electrical engineer — Resnick went to graduate school at Western Michigan University and studied educational evaluation. There he worked with professors who were experts in the field of applied research.

Resnick did his graduate thesis about parental education classes. For reasons he chooses not to discuss, however, his experiences eventually soured him on psychology and teaching. After earning his masters in 1979 he spent seven years in his expected field before thinking, “There has to be a better way.”

“It was much more of a political environment than I thought,” he admits. This led him to take a year off “to do a variety of things” before settling with his parents in his native Philadelphia. There he saw an ad for a research assistant at ORC and got an entry level job conducting polls in 1984. He was named president of the U.S. group in January, 2007, the same month ORC began polling for CNN.

Beyond psychology, of course, is statistical analysis, which alone makes opinion polling much more complicated than simply asking questions. Statistical “weighting” must be employed in order to keep information culled from smaller populations in balance with the sample as a whole.

“Let’s say we’ve done a poll of 1,000 people, and we find that ‘A’ accounts for 15 percent of the population,” Resnick says. “But A represents only 11 percent of the sample. We have to create a statistical weight so that A accounts for the 15 percent they should, rather than the 11 percent they do.”

This is especially needed where large public polls are concerned. Four percent might not be much of a difference in many things but in presidential elections 4 percent could easily decide a race. If, in fact, you add 4 percent to either John McCain’s or Barack Obama’s current numbers, you will have found our next president.

The path of a political poll begins with the news organization, or at least that’s how the arrangement works between ORC and CNN. The network will draft questions and submit them to Opinion Research, which will then scrutinize the wording and content before developing a computer script and any suggestions for CNN. ORC experts will role-play to see if anything sticks out, and once things are settled, the finished product is delivered to CNN for approval. Once approved, the polling begins.

When polling is done the data is compiled and analyzed by ORC and tabulations are scoured for usable data. It is then translated into a readable format before being sent to CNN for reporting.

Until 2006 CNN used the Gallup Organization for its polls. According to a leaked internal memo from Gallup CEO Jim Clifton to his employees dated that March, the relationship ended due to sagging ratings. “We have had a great relationship with CNN, but it is not the right alignment for our future,” Clifton wrote. “CNN has far fewer viewers than it did in the past, and we feel that our brand was getting lost and diluted.”

Resnick says CNN contacted Opinion Research after some initial interest was shown by the firm. ORC did a few polls for free and those gathered what Resnick calls “a phenomenal response.” CNN and Opinion Research have been together ever since.

But there is more to Opinion Research Corporation than CNN and political polls, of course. Political polling actually is one of the smallest sectors of ORC’s business. “We love CNN,” Resnick says. “CNN is great for our profile and I love walking through an airport and seeing a CNN/Opinion Research poll on TV. But polling accounts for a small percentage of our global revenue.”

How much, Resnick won’t say, but he admits, “We are a public company. If we only did political polls we wouldn’t be a very attractive company.”

Most of ORC’s money, like that of all the industry’s major players, is made in the corporate world — surveys commissioned by companies to find out everything from how a new product line is doing (or why it’s failing) to how efficiency and communications can be improved.

All of this is conducted under a dense blanket of secrecy. Confidentiality is so guarded, in fact, that from a lengthy list of clients ORC has worked with, Resnick would only mention six: Lowe’s Home Improvement, Sears, the Royal Bank of Scotland, American Funds, the U.S. Postal Service, and the New York Stock Exchange. Further evidence of the attention to confidentiality: “I can’t tell you what we do for them.”

Results of ORC’s annual stock exchange CEO polls, however, are a very public and very high-profile endeavor. Each year the company asks CEOs of companies traded on the NYSE about their experiences, ideas, and perspectives. The latest version, available through www.opinionresearch.com and www.nyse.com, was published in August and reflects an optimistic band of CEOs looking favorably upon growth opportunities in the world market.

Otherwise, Resnick is mum. The reason for all the secrecy, though, is nothing sinister. Resnick explains, ORC is known for doing certain types of work — customer satisfaction surveys, employee engagement, organizational communication. Announcing who ORC is working for could cue competitors into what a company is doing.

Though the methods of market research have certainly changed since the industry’s early days, the industry itself remains fundamentally the same.

Back in the 1930s, when George Gallup and Claude Robinson were betting they could turn abstract statistical data into a crystal ball for elections, they were also tracking public tastes in everything from movie stars to Coca Cola. The attention to politics wasn’t profitable then and wouldn’t be enough to float a big company now. In a way, and not unlike journalism, there is a measure of duty associated with finding what America thinks of its leaders. Said Gallup’s Frank Newport in a phone interview last week, “This kind of polling helps the democratic process.”

Market research is a relatively young industry, though. Prior to the 1920s, surveys of the public were almost entirely about population numbers. The United States Census, in fact, is the first known large public survey conducted in the country, dating to 1790. According to CASRO, consumer polls did not exist until the 20th century because there simply were not enough consumer goods being marketed until the 1920s.

Once companies multiplied and choices were offered for a given type of goods (there was no longer one soda company, one shoe company, or one car company) America’s consumer economy exploded. World War II introduced mass-production processes that ramped up the amount and variety of consumer products.

Today, surveys and polls are so specialized — and xinstantaneously conducted — that anyone with the ability to hire a firm like ORC can find out nearly anything about itself, the public, or the complicated interplay between the two.

But the difference today is that market research has matured and standardized. Part of that has to do with technological advances and part with how people today gather and use information.

“If you look at people in their 40s, running their own companies,” Resnick says, “people with MBAs — they were taught to rely on their gut feelings. But information itself has become a much more important commodity.

“The sheer abundance of information now is overwhelming,” he says. “We help people sift through and get to what’s relevant.”

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