Pollster Barry Zeplowitz has lived all his life in Western New York. He says he never even considered leaving. Yet Barry Zeplowitz Associates surveys people who live across the country, specializing in political consulting and marketing research.
Zeplowitz attended Bennett High School before graduating from Amherst Central High School. He earned a degree in political science from the University at Buffalo. His wife, Penny Zeplowitz, served on the Amherst Town Board from 1991 to 1995. They have two grown children.
Zeplowitz does not like the spotlight. After 35 years in the polling business, he said he allows his surveys to speak for themselves.
People Talk: Have you considered running for public office?
Barry Zeplowitz: No. I have watched others run, and found my personality did not fit running for public office. I am not overly extroverted. I do not easily go up to meet people. I was not interested in legislation per se. The elements that would go into a serious public official were not things I was interested in. As a consultant, my view always has been that you have a goal, which was Election Day, and then it ends, and you move on to the next one. My wife was quite different.
PT: How so?
BZ: She was able to campaign. She was really into legislation, and quite effective.
PT: This must be your busy season.
BZ: We’re busy generally all year-round, because we do marketing research in addition to political polling. We just finished a study of soybean farmers for the National Soybean Board, which we do every year. And I do a lot of projects for the Florida Agriculture Department. The most recent one had to with nutrition programs in the schools.
PT: Do you have competition in town?
BZ: There’s probably a half-dozen people doing what I do, but I really don’t ever come across them. I have my niche: timely, accurate, cost-effective results. We have worked on everything from presidential campaigns – we were the lead polling consultant in McCain’s primary victories, and part of his polling team in the general election. This year we worked on Michele Bachmann and Rick Perry. We work in a half-dozen state legislatures in the country, from Illinois to Florida to North Carolina and New York. We did all of Mississippi’s stuff last year.
PT: How has technology impeded your ability to get reliable data?
BZ: The explosion of people doing this work, and doing it differently. We do a live interviewer phone bank. You’ve probably heard of robo calls, which has become a big thing today. If you are a robo call interview company, you are not allowed to call cellphones. In a poll we did last week in Florida, we had 26 percent cellphones. If you can’t reach that 26 percent, you’ve got a skewed survey, particularly to the Republican side, because younger [people] – more Democrats – tend to have cellphones.
PT: You’re a Republican pollster. Doesn’t that limit your business?
BZ: I had to deal with that my first year in business, before I was even doing polling. I worked for two Republicans and four or five Democrats. I had to ask myself: How could I know what’s in my head, and work both sides of the fence? There’s an inherent conflict of interest if you attempt to work both sides of the aisle. Some people do. I’ve avoided that issue just by staying on one side.
PT: How much do you charge for the average poll?
BZ: For a typical congressional race of 400 interviews, about 30 questions, it’s $8,000. My competitors would get $12,000 to $20,000.
PT: What has caused you to reject a client?
BZ: Real simple. If I find I don’t like them philosophically, or maybe their background, or if I think they would not make a good elected official. You reach a point in your life where you make basic determinations about what is important to you.
PT: What are some of the stranger issues you have polled on?
BZ: That’s easy, particularly in the South. Two or three times we’ve had candidates who have gotten into some very serious social issues. One candidate was mooning young women out of his hotel window in downtown Richmond. Legislative leaders wanted to dump him, but we had to poll to see if people felt strongly enough. They did.
We had another situation in Georgia at a park where occasionally men tended to hook up. In this case, it was another legislator who claimed he was walking along, had to urinate but was arrested by an undercover cop for solicitation. They wanted to know if he could survive this. Again, he didn’t.
PT: What has polling taught you about human beings?
BZ: Invariably, if I do 100 surveys about new candidates running for office, they will be shocked, chagrined, disbelieving and questioning the survey because they have this self-perception they are better known than they could possibly be. There’s people who think they are so well known because they are in the newspaper a lot. That’s one of the things I find myself explaining to a new client: Why their name ID is only 18 percent. When my wife first ran, her name recognition was below 10 percent. No one knew who she was.
PT: Some polls you conduct are self-sponsored. What issues have led to that?
BZ: Occasionally, we’ll get a client who cancels at the last minute, and I have 30 interviewers strolling in. Instead of sending these people home, I will pull out of the air something I’m interested in. Living out in Amherst, I was interested in the village-town consolidation issue. And I did one on [former Buffalo Schools Superintendent James A.] Williams.
PT: Your interest in politics preceding your polling?
BZ: I was active in school. I was a Bennett guy until my parents moved out to Amherst. They would have had to pay tuition for me to continue at Bennett, and they were not wealthy people. My father had a wallpaper and paint store on William Street. I went to Amherst Central, but I was an outsider there. It wasn’t life changing. I just got through and went on to UB.
PT: What do you do for fun?
BZ: That’s a challenge I have when looking down the road at when I might not have a business. We have a sailboat. Travel is a six-week a year thing for us. But I don’t have a lot of hobbies. During the spring and summer, we still have our roller blades. Exercise and working out is part of what I do. I don’t play golf. I don’t belong to clubs or organizations.