ROCK HILL — It's a Tuesday afternoon and the hunt for answers is under way.

In the basement of Dinkins Hall, questions drift out of the three rooms where telephone interviews are conducted for Winthrop University's Center for Public Opinion and Policy Research.

The college's flagship work is the Winthrop Poll, which has become South Carolina's most consistent surveyor of public opinion, coming out several times a year.

The room hums with the near-constant chatter of questioning. It's like having multiple songs playing at once, where only a few phrases can be deciphered at a time. 

For nearly two decades, Winthrop University has been finding out what South Carolina residents and — in recent years — what Southerners think. The topics include presidential candidates, attitudes about the Confederate battle flag and climate change.

Its record of tracking public sentiment has become so notable it caught the attention of the Democratic National Committee, which selected Winthrop as one of 18 threshold polls they're using to determine who among the two dozen 2020 presidential candidates qualify for debates, though no surveys of the Democrats have been done yet.

None of it would have been possible without political science professor Scott Huffmon, the center's creator and director.

He began the polling initiative in 2002 as part of his "Scope and Methods" research class. Now, the center has become a force in its own right with its findings published in major news outlets like The New York Times, the BBC and The Washington Post.

"The importance of a survey is that it's more than just an anecdotal conversation with a single person," Huffmon said. "We're asking many people the same question the exact same way. But, more importantly, even for an individual, we're not just covering the topic. We're also getting attitudes toward other issues that may be related."

Huffmon said it's only with systematic questioning that you can begin to understand how and why people form attitudes, "as opposed to simply what their opinion is."

How it works

Finding out what people think is a science in itself.

At each step of a poll's development, Huffmon said precautions must be taken to protect the integrity of the poll, from how questions are worded to the order they're asked.

When the center begins polling South Carolinians about the 2020 Democratic presidential candidates, callers will need to pronounce the tongue-tying names of each candidate perfectly and deliver the poll questions in the same way for each call.

"It's about quality control," said Summersby Okey, the center's operations manager who oversees its day-to-day activities.

Questions must also be clear, easily understood and neutral. Huffmon writes most of the questions used in the Winthrop Poll, but they are also reviewed by Okey and others. 

There are 54 calling stations here, each equipped with a computer, a phone and a headset.

Employees must leave their cell phones in a black over-the-door organizer with numbered pockets. On the way to their stations, they grab crayons, a coloring book or a crossword puzzle to stay busy between calls.

Others prefer playing cards.

At any given time, a supervisor can pick up a phone and listen in to any of the surveys in progress. 

Callers only dial from a set of predetermined likely phone numbers, Okey said. Those digits have been randomly generated by a trusted third-party vendor. The reason? "Random sampling" can often be the most representative of a population. Everyone polled must have the same chance of getting called for questions as anyone else they are calling. 

"The last time you had blood drawn for tests at the doctor's office, did the nurse take most of your blood or only a tiny vial? Obviously, it's the latter. The reason is because every drop of blood nearly perfectly samples all the blood, accurately reflecting what is in it and in what proportions," Huffmon said.

As computer systems dial the numbers, callers wait on the line for a human to pick up. If callers reach disconnected numbers, need to call a person back, or get rejected, they note it. But if a person stays on the line and agrees to the survey, the caller tabulates each response on the computer, one question at a time.

Okey, who used to work as a caller in the center, now oversees day-to-day polling operations. She's also responsible for training callers, who undergo at least six hours of training.

Most are Winthrop students, but some aren't. Okey said all callers must work a minimum of 12 hours each week. 

All are paid for their time, which starts at $9.50 an hour and can increase in tiers based on performance reviews and how long they work at the center. 

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During a Tuesday visit, callers were randomly dialing South Carolina residents, asking about their health. Each state must collect this data so the S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control pursued a contract with Winthrop to do this work. The results will be sent to the Centers for Disease Control as part of their Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System.

It's one of the contracts that were awarded to the polling center this year, which Huffmon said totals an estimated $3.4 million.

None of the contracts are for individual political campaigns; Huffmon said they never will be.

"We've had campaigns reach out to us, but that's not what we do," Huffmon said. "We are a public university. This work will always be done with South Carolina in mind."

However, the work they do can inform political decisions.

How it informs decisions

During the 2008 presidential cycle, Huffmon saw a shift in the South Carolina ground-game strategies of then-candidates Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton after one of Winthrop's polls gained national attention.

A September 2007 poll conducted by Winthrop and South Carolina ETV found Obama and Clinton were battling it out for the support of African American voters in the Palmetto State. 

Their survey of randomly selected African Americans found Obama led among black voters, with 35 percent saying they would vote for him, compared to Clinton's 31 percent. However, the poll also revealed a division and an opportunity.

While support for Obama was somewhat stronger among black men, black females were evenly split between Obama and Clinton. The campaigns responded.

Obama launched a grassroots effort to broaden his messaging in black beauty shops and barbershops.

"And Hillary brought in Bill," Huffmon recalled. 

Obama won South Carolina's 2008 primary with a large majority of African American voters, including 78 percent of black women. 

In addition to drafting questions about current events, Huffmon has solicited questions from state lawmakers in the past, including a statewide 2018 question about offshore drilling, which he said was requested by both Republican and Democratic legislators.

"To me, this poll is about public service," Huffmon said. "And it's a service I take very seriously."

Reach Caitlin Byrd at 843-937-5590 and follow her on Twitter @MaryCaitlinByrd.

Political Reporter

Caitlin Byrd is a political reporter at The Post and Courier and author of the Palmetto Politics newsletter. Before moving to Charleston in 2016, her byline appeared in the Asheville Citizen-Times. To date, Byrd has won 17 awards for her work.

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