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interviews

The Horse Race

by Trey Hood III
October 31, 2020

This interview with Trey Hood III, professor of political science at the University of Georgia, was conducted and condensed by franknews.

Trey | I've been at UGA since 1999. I teach courses and conduct research on southern politics and on election administration. I'm currently the director of the SPIA Survey Research Center. We conduct statewide polling in Georgia.

frank | What sort of polling are you doing in Georgia? 

We do a lot of work with the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, as well as some independent polling. Most of our work currently is based around the election. We're finishing up our third and final election poll for the state of Georgia. We will conduct a post-election voter satisfaction survey and there's a very high probability that there will be a runoff for one of the Senate elections. So, it is likely we will conduct more polling on the runoff election.

Primarily, we have been looking at head to head matchups for president and for the two Senate races for Georgia. We also ask a number of other questions on each survey. For example, voter reaction to the Coronavirus pandemic and the local, state, and national responses to the pandemic.

I think a lot of people are traumatized by 2016 polling, and a little bit hesitant about taking what they're seeing as something they can trust. What did pollsters learn from 2016? How do you attempt to get the most accurate version of the polls?

Well, a lot of what we do is very formulaic and doesn't change from year to year. In response to the 2016 polling issues, we added education level to our weighting scheme. We weight on sex, age, race, and now education. This is important because in most places, including Georgia, you end up with more respondents in the survey that are college-educated, so you weight on education level to ensure that you have a representative sample. 

Are you seeing anything of note in Georgia right now?

Every time you get a poll, it's a snapshot of time. People's opinions change in response to external political events. That is why it is important to keep polling, to keep getting those snapshots. You can't bet the farm on one single poll, no matter how well it's done. I often look at the polls that come out on Real Clear Politics — which aggregates different polls — to get a sense of what other people are finding. 

Especially in an election cycle as volatile as this one, it is important to know that things are going to change from day to day. I thought the Supreme Court vacancy was going to be a big issue to voters, but it turned out to be quickly overtaken by other factors. It has just been one thing after another with this cycle, so it makes it quite difficult to stay on top of things.

Yeah. It's exhausting to be a citizen. I can understand how polling is important to campaigns when they are targeting voters, but outside of that, why are polls important? 

Well, I don't want to argue myself out of a job here. To the extent to which people want to know what's going on, it is really the only way to get a gauge on things. I mean, is it necessary? Not really.  I'm a huge college football fan here in Georgia. We talk ad nauseum for a week about what's going to happen in the game on Saturday, and at the end of the day, it doesn't really matter. The game will be played and there's going to be an outcome. 

It is the same thing with polling — there is going to be an election and there is going to be an outcome. 

Polling is just one of the things that really interests people. People want to know what's going on ahead of time. Polls generate news. None of this is bad. Aside from trying to predict outcomes, polls can also give us insight into what the electorate is thinking about candidates and issues. Is it necessary to make predictions about the election--not really. 

The presidential race in Georgia is close. The down-ballot races are tight as well. Do you think that says something about a changing demographic or do you think that says more about the public opinion of an incumbent? 

Well, both. We've been talking about the demographic change in Georgia for 20 years. The important change we are talking about is, of course, the racial composition of the electorate. 

Race is one of the major pillars that underlies the current party system, especially in Georgia and in the South. 

African Americans tend to be overwhelmingly Democratic and white voters are majority Republican. That the number of African American voters is increasing helps one party over the other. So changing demographics is one part of the equation.

The other thing is that people are energized to vote against Trump — people are not even necessarily enthusiastic about voting for Biden, but they are excited about voting against Trump. That can have a drag on some of these down-ticket races as well.

Do you feel like race is sort of the driving factor in politics in Georgia still?

Race has been the major underlying driver of politics in the South, including Georgia. That really hasn't changed. Efforts to attract African American voters to the Republican Party have not been all that successful. One group that is in between the two parties is HIspanics. Both parties can try to attract Hispanic voters. Things can change. There may be a new dividing line between parties taking into account another factor outside race. 

From your research, can you tell what sort of issues are more persuasive in Georgia?

One of the things that polling has shown in Georgia is that there are very few undecided voters. 

A lot of campaigning is about getting your base to the polls, as opposed to trying to persuade anyone. 

Social issues like abortion are still important in the state for Republicans, many of whom are conservative. For Democrats, healthcare, and Medicaid expansion specifically, is important. I'm not saying there's no one that's left to be persuaded, but in Georgia, it's mostly a turnout game. So, you're going to be speaking to those issues that stir up your base.