Most of the headlines about CNN’s new public-opinion poll this week focused on President Donald Trump’s 38 percent approval rating. But there was also this: After a 2016 election in which most of the data underestimated Trump’s chances, CNN has a new pollster.
The new poll was conducted by SSRS, a major survey-research company, instead of CNN’s old partner, ORC International. CNN confirmed this week that its partnership with ORC, which included co-branding of the poll, has ended after more than a decade.
The switch comes at a perilous moment for both the media and the polling industry. Attacked by the president as “fake news” for results he disagrees with, pollsters and the news organizations they work with inspire little confidence from the public. A Marist-McClatchy poll — yes, a poll about polling — back in March found that only 7 percent of Americans have a great deal of trust in polls, and just 29 percent said they have a good amount of trust in polls. A combined majority said they don’t have very much trust in polls (39 percent) or don’t trust them at all (22 percent).
A CNN spokesperson declined to comment on reasons behind the switch, and ORC International didn’t respond to multiple questions about the termination of the relationship, which began in 2006. CNN and ORC had continued working together after last year’s presidential election, but the final CNN/ORC poll was conducted in late April.
The final CNN/ORC International state polls in last year’s presidential election were, in some cases, off from the eventual results. In Nevada, the final CNN/ORC International poll — conducted about a week before Election Day — showed Trump leading Hillary Clinton among likely voters by 6 points, but Clinton prevailed there by 2.4 points. In Pennsylvania, Clinton led the poll by 4 points, but Trump won by 0.7 points. Its poll in Florida was closer and well within the margin of sampling error — Clinton led by 2 points, but Trump won by 1.2 points — but still missed the eventual winner. (A poll in Arizona was more accurate: Trump led by 5 points in the poll and won by 3.6 points.)
David Dutwin, the executive vice president and chief methodologist at SSRS, said CNN approached his firm about working together.
“At the end of the day, suffice to say they were unhappy with something,” Dutwin said when asked about the end of CNN’s relationship with ORC. “I think we have a pretty strong reputation. So they came to us with a proposal to work with them.”
But pollsters say the 2016 election wasn’t the black mark on the industry that it was made out to be.
“While the general public reaction was that ‘the polls failed,’ we found the reality to be more complex — a position held by a number of industry experts,” pollsters wrote in a comprehensive autopsy earlier this year. “Some polls, indeed, had large, problematic errors, but many polls did not.”
Most other news organizations aren’t overhauling their polling operations after last year’s election. All four major broadcast television networks and two of the three largest national newspapers continue to use the same pollsters they did in 2016.
And just because CNN is switching horses doesn’t mean it is changing the way it surveys Americans — by using less expensive surveys conducted over the internet, for example. Both ORC and SSRS employ similar methodologies: live-interview telephone calls placed to landlines and cell phones.
“I think we’re at the point right now, if telephone polls get any significantly more expensive, it’s just going to price out most media outlets from doing them,” Dutwin said.
Other news organizations operate on dual tracks. CBS News and NBC News commissioned polls from both live-telephone and internet pollsters in the last election, and told POLITICO they plan to continue those relationships going forward.
“We are after talking to as many people, as often, as we can,” said Anthony Salvanto, elections and surveys director at CBS News, describing the employment of both approaches. “Where we find great methodologies, we will use them in order to reach out and hear from people.”
Less certain is the fate of the CBS News/New York Times partnership. While The Times didn’t co-sponsor every poll that CBS News commissioned in the past, their relationship has been said to be on ice since last year after a number of veteran pollsters left the paper. The last seven live-caller surveys CBS News has published — including six since last year’s election — have been without The Times as a co-sponsor.
CBS declined to discuss the state of its relationship with the Times. A Times spokesperson did not respond to an email on Friday seeking comment. But back in April, Times spokeswoman Danielle Rhoades Ha told POLITICO that there “had been no formal change in the partnership.”
“As we said last summer, The Times remains committed to high-quality public-opinion research,” Rhoades Ha said in April. “We are still considering how best to incorporate it as we reshape our newsroom.”
CNN’s hiring of SSRS could complicate life for CBS News, regardless of whether The Times returns as a co-sponsor. Salvanto declined to discuss whether it affected CBS. “I don’t want to get into what other folks do and who they choose to use,” he said.
Dutwin told POLITICO there is a “firewall” at SSRS between employees who work on CBS polls and those who will now be working with CNN.
“We have a completely different team of people working with one group versus another,” he said. “There’s a wall between them. They don’t talk to each other.”
NBC News is continuing its partnership with The Wall Street Journal, a network spokesperson said. The two organizations have worked with a bipartisan team of pollsters for decades to produce the live-caller, national surveys.
NBC also expects to continue working with the Marist College Institute for Public Opinion on state-level polling, and with online pollster SurveyMonkey in a partnership that began last year.
“To understand public opinion, we do it all: online polling, state polling and what we consider the gold standard of national polling — the NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll,” said Mark Murray, NBC News’ senior political editor.
The polling partnership between ABC News and The Washington Post continues, and both organizations have continued to work together on national surveys through the year. But that doesn’t mean they are standing pat.
"We have very high standards for polling and are proud of the work that we did during the last election," said Scott Clement, The Post’s polling director. "As we always have, we continue to hone our surveys with the latest advancements in survey methods, as well as clearly reporting and explaining poll estimates and their level of certainty."
Fox News confirmed that it will continue to use its bipartisan polling team — Democrat Chris Anderson and Republican Daron Shaw — to conduct its polls.
Despite the headwinds of increasing costs and presidential trash-talk, the intense interest in political news during the Trump administration ensures that the nation’s largest news organizations will continue public-opinion polls.
“There’s an interest in what people are thinking” CBS News’ Salvanto said. “We believe people want to understand how public opinion is shifting in these times.
“I think the answer is more polling. Keep listening, keep going out there. That’s just what we all have to do.”