Veteran Political Pollster Peter Hart Inaugurates First Tuesday Speaker Series

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Peter Hart, Dean of American Political Pollsters, speaks to students during the last year's First Tuesday speaker series. Photo by Lathan Goumas/Strategic Communications

Originally published on September 14, 2020

“The role of the pollster has changed from just delivering numbers, to now being the person who will shape [a campaign],” said Peter Hart, dean of American political pollsters on September 8 at the kick-off of a new series of video webinars called First Tuesday.

View the full recording.

George Mason University Robinson Professor of Public Policy Steven Pearlstein hosts the weekly conversations that bring high-profile guest speakers to discuss the latest developments in national and local election campaigns. The series is part of his Honors College course; Schar School students and the broader Mason community are invited to attend and deepen their insight into what promises to be one of the most contentious campaign seasons in recent history. 

As a pollster, Hart reviews a candidate’s influence throughout an election, helping decide where to allocate money to reach demographics who may have been overlooked. 

Hart also has been involved with polling since 1965 and has aided NBC-Wall Street Journal’s political polling. He has worked with over 50 senators, 40 governors, and multiple presidential candidates, and founded Hart Research in 1971. In addition to his experience in politics, he has also taught at the University of Pennsylvania, Duke University, the University of California, Berkeley, and Harvard University.

A pollster’s insight has become critical to a candidate’s campaign, and the presidential elections are no different. Characterizing this role, Pearlstein noted that “campaigns are generally not about the issues, but the issues are used as a window into character." Polling gives an indirect indicator how the public is perceiving a candidate's character. 

“Every campaign is a reflection of the candidate,” said Hart. “Trump may be talking issues, but what he is really stressing is a way of governing. When he said, ‘make America great again’, he wasn’t talking about making America great again…It was a code language to say, ‘We’re going to go back to the America you felt safe in’—a message [targeting] people who were 35 to 45 and above.”

The upcoming 2020 election will be unlike any we have seen before, as voters and candidates navigate a world in the middle of a pandemic. Hart predicts more uncertainty than ever with estimates regarding the results, as votes done by mail or absentee are counted after those done in person, and not before election night. 

The First Tuesday series is sponsored by the Honors College and the Schar School of Policy and Government. Events will continue to every Tuesday, 9 a.m. until 10:15 a.m. EDT during campaign season, except November 3. They are open to the whole Mason community by registration.  Next up, Pearlstein speaks with Mike Henry, former Campaign Manager for Democratic Senators Tim Kaine, Mark Warner, and Virginia Governor Terry McAuliffe, now a Distinguished Visiting Professor at the Schar School.