At 1 a.m., quiet darkness envelops UNF’s concrete campus, and the hum of crickets replace the chatter of students. But in the Public Opinion Research Laboratory, tucked away on the second floor of the Social Sciences building, students are wide awake, calling people who live in Alaska.
Dr. Michael Binder took over as the lab’s faculty director in 2013, where he conducts public opinion research on everything from local elections to the Florida Department of Transportation’s “Click It or Ticket” campaign.
The lab recently teamed up with the Florida Times-Union to run two polls, one in June and one in August, on the local election races for the state attorney and public defender position, as well as the pension tax referendum. The latest poll, released five days before the election, correctly forecasted voter’s decisions in all three categories.
“I had no doubt that [Melissa] Nelson was going to win, I had no doubt [Charlie] Cofer was going to win and I was pretty confident based on our last poll that the pension tax was going to pass,” Binder said.
The 15-year-old lab sat dormant when Binder took over three years ago. A professor for a list of government classes, he started assigning students a class project in the lab each semester, slowly building the department.
“I want to build this into the Quinnipiac of the south,” Binder said. “I want this to be the preeminent polling organization, at least in the state of Florida, when it comes to nonpartisan, unbiased polling.”
Binder is fighting a two-front war. He’s fighting to develop the Public Opinion Research Lab, and also raise the level of interest and participation in local and state politics.
With the lab on an undeniable upswing, and voter participation in Duval County 12 percent higher in 2016 than in the 2014 August primaries, he seems to be making progress.
One major obstacle of any polling organization is money – or lack thereof.
In the 2012 presidential election, Mitt Romney and Barack Obama combined to spend over $25 million on polling. The two local-election polls Binder conducted cost $6,000-$7,000 each.
UNF, currently facing money problems, provides some funding for the lab, but not enough to maintain Binder’s expectations. The lab relies on revenue from outside sources, such as the companies the lab does research for, as well as partnerships with local media outlets like the Florida Times-Union and News4Jax to provide the necessary funding to stay afloat.
As a result of the partnership, News4Jax used the recent UNF poll to determine which four of the seven candidates would participate in a debate weeks before the election.
“It’s a nice partnership with the leading newspaper in the region and leading news channel in the region,” Binder said. “Those are good relationships to have going forward.”
Nearly every employee is a student, and is responsible for calling people to ask survey questions. Students make $10 an hour and are not required to have a political science major.
Dr. Michael Childers has taught politics and government at UNF since 2014, and he has worked with Dr. Binder in the research center on a variety of projects.
“The lionshare of the money goes to paying students,” Childers said. “It’s a good job creator on campus.”
To see a list of polls and surveys the lab’s conducted, click here.
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