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Fresh from predicting Giuliani’s defeat in his home state, the growing Siena Research Institute looks to go national

Fresh from predicting Giuliani’s defeat in his home state, the growing Siena Research Institute looks to go national

The Siena Research Institute on the school's Loudonville campus is looking to make a bigger splash i
Fresh from predicting Giuliani’s defeat in his home state, the growing Siena Research Institute looks to go national
Christyn Clark, 19, of Gastonia, N.C., conducts a consumer confidence survey by phone from the Siena Research Institute at Siena College in Loudonville.
Photographer: Meredith Kaiser

It was a different kind of race in the run for the White House.

On the morning of Jan. 21, the long-running and crowded U.S. presidential race faced yet another defining moment. At 9:30 that morning, the Siena Research Institute released the results of a statewide survey showing that former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani trailed Arizona Sen. John McCain by 12 percentage points.

By noon that day, the Marist Institute for Public Opinion posted similar survey results, giving McCain an 11-point lead over Giuliani in his home state. The Quinnipiac University Polling Institute followed with a poll a day later that narrowed McCain’s lead over Giuliani to 3 points.

Giuliani’s Super Tuesday loss on Feb. 5 in the New York Republican primary turned out to be a small yet significant win for SRI, which was the first pollster to predict McCain’s victory. And now the institute on Siena’s Loudonville campus is looking to make a bigger splash in the sphere of public opinion.

Since getting its first full-time director in August, SRI has doubled its polling activity to include about 10 projects each month. Depending on the results of Tuesday’s primaries in Rhode Island, Vermont, Texas and Ohio, SRI might launch its first national presidential poll.

“We’re putting our toe in the national water,” said SRI Director Donald Levy.

But amid one of the most closely watched presidential races in recent memory, SRI is not alone in being busy polling this election cycle. Nor is it alone in broadening its reach in the political and economic realms.

Nonprofit pollsters, such as SRI and Quinnipiac in Hamden, Conn., are venturing into new states. At the same time, for-profit pollsters, such as Zogby International in Utica and Harris Interactive in Rochester, are venturing into new countries.

“There’s no question the presidential campaign is very lucrative,” said Zogby International President and Chief Executive Officer John Zogby.

Even without Sens. Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton slugging it out for the Democratic presidential nomination, polling is increasingly becoming a lucrative enterprise. Worldwide spending on market research and services this year is projected to reach $32.8 billion, up 8.5 percent from 2007. That figure is expected to climb to $38.3 billion by 2010, according to the trade magazine Industry Research.

Since 1996, Zogby International conducted presidential polls through a partnership with Reuters, the world’s largest international multimedia news agency. For the run-up to the Nov. 4 election, Zogby International has also partnered with cable channel C-SPAN. Only 8 percent of the Utica pollster’s business last year stemmed from political work.

Even though SRI and Quinnipiac do not receive commissions for most of the political surveys, the payoff largely comes through the media exposure the polls provide their namesake schools.

In November, the Connecticut pollster relocated its call center to a larger facility across the street from the Hamden campus. With that move, its number of computer-assisted polling stations doubled to 160.

“I’ve never seen so many polls,” Quinnipiac polling Director Doug Schwartz said, commenting on the presidential race.

Quinnipiac started polling in Connecticut in 1988. It began in New York in 1994 and has been broadening its reach since. Last year, it started polling in swing states Pennsylvania, Ohio and Florida. Since 1964, every U.S. president has won at least two of those states.

Where Quinnipiac used to work on one poll each week, it is now working on two. In Poughkeepsie, Marist Institute Director Lee Miringoff said he, too, is scrambling to keep pace with the rapidly evolving presidential race. For example, McCain’s sputtering campaign rapidly gained frontrunner status.

Miringoff said the pollster has “a lot more polls with a lot shorter window to do them.” Marist starting polling in 1978 and its first national poll was conducted in 1995.

SRI’s first national poll might replicate on a broader scale a survey it conducted last month in New York. The survey asked New Yorkers to compare candidates’ characteristics, such as honesty, intelligence, decisiveness and inspiration.

“We’re doing more. It’s become more noticeable,” said SRI Founding Director Douglas Lonnstrom, who is also a Siena statistics and finance professor.

Started in 1981

In 1981, Lonnstrom and now-retired history professor Tom Kelly teamed up to conduct an opinion survey to rank U.S. presidents. SRI was born out of that initiative.

In SRI’s early days, Lonnstrom remembers having to bum phones in other professors’ offices in the college’s gold-domed Siena Hall so staffers could ask New Yorkers questions. The institute later got a call center in what used to be a friar’s bedroom in that building.

About five years ago, the call center relocated to the basement of Hines Hall, which is connected to the campus chapel. Using 20 computer-assisted polling stations there, a small army of students poll New Yorkers on everything from their home-buying plans to their views on whether illegal immigrants should receive driver’s licenses. SRI employs 125 students, 25 adult pollsters and seven supervisors.

Since Levy took over SRI, the institute’s surveys have found:

u 63 percent of New Yorkers describe themselves as sports fans.

u 82 percent of Schenectady County residents have visited downtown Schenectady in the past year.

u 27 percent of upstate chief executive officers expect their businesses’ revenues to decline in 2008.

Levy expects to release this week the results of a life satisfaction survey of 1,000 New Yorkers. The survey will establish an index of life satisfaction for the state, incorporating how satisfied people are with their jobs, education, finances and relationships.

“Again and again, we continue to build the inventory of data that allows us to comment on the fabric of life in New York,” said Levy, who came to SRI from the Institute for Social and Community Research at West Virginia Wesleyan College in Buckhannon, W.Va.

Siena brought Levy on board to take SRI to what he calls “the next level.” SRI’s staple surveys includes its monthly Siena New York Poll, which provides a snapshot of various political issues playing out statewide.

Since 1999, the institute has also conducted monthly polls that measure consumer confidence in New York. Weighed down by energy prices, the nationwide credit crunch and shaky job data, the state’s consumer confidence index fell to a historic low in January.

Another staple SRI poll is its annual Holiday Spending Survey, which gauges how much consumers will spend on Christmas and Hanukkah. For saying consumers planned to spend less money and give fewer gifts during the holiday season last year, Lonnstrom said SRI was “unfairly accused of being Grinch-like.”

More commission work

While college funding supports most of SRI’s surveys, the institute’s commission work is also growing. The Schenectady Metroplex Development Authority recently contracted SRI to gauge Schenectady County residents’ opinions about revitalization efforts in downtown Schenectady. First Niagara Bank sponsored the upstate CEO survey.

“There’s this thirst for information,” said Levy.

Last fall, SRI conducted five small surveys in western and northern New York to gauge resident sentiments on wind energy projects for Horizon Wind Energy in Albany. Those surveys concluded New Yorkers overwhelmingly favored the development of more wind energy, but that support waned slightly when they were asked about specific wind farm projects.

“It was somewhat of a new approach for the company . . . It’s been more based on personal interaction with communities than on a scientific approach to surveying,” said Greg Davidson, the public affairs manager for Horizon, which has a 50 percent stake in the Maple Ridge Wind Farm outside Lowville, Lewis County.

Room for everyone

Despite nonprofit pollsters’ expansion projects into new domestic markets, Zogby said he does not view them as a threat to his 24-year-old business. Zogby International and Harris are increasingly growing their international operations.

Last year marked the first year in Zogby’s International’s history when international revenues surpassed domestic revenues. In 2007, international revenues accounted for 52 percent of Zogby’s business. A year earlier, the pollster opened an office in Dubai, United Arab Emirates. Its Miami office opened last October.

“It’s a big and growing industry. There’s plenty of room, but we have a big and aggressive growth plan,” said Zogby.

Harris is also aggressively building its international presence as U.S. companies increasingly look to tap into Asian and European markets. Those overseas markets are especially attractive to pharmaceutical companies, who turn to companies such as Harris for help in understanding the needs of consumers there, said spokesman Dave Hucko.

Harris last year acquired market research firms in Germany, China, Singapore and Canada. The company employs 425 in Rochester and 1,300 worldwide. International revenues accounted for 24 percent of Harris’ business during its 2007 fiscal year that ended June 30.

“Our objective is to continue these acquisitions so we can stretch our global footprint,” Hucko said.

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