Prophetic pollster: Sanderoff of Research & Polling Inc. known for producing accurate data

Mar. 26—ALBUQUERQUE — As a child, Brian Sanderoff dreamed of becoming a professional baseball player, or maybe a motorcycle rider. Perhaps even a teacher.

"I'll tell you what I didn't dream of, and that's what I'm doing now," the 69-year-old Albuquerque pollster said. "That never crossed my mind."

But in the odd way that life and dreams often collide with ability and consistency, the job Sanderoff couldn't conceive of decades ago has brought him notoriety, respect, influence. It may be too much to say he's the most important man in New Mexico politics, but one thing's for certain: When he unveils his numbers, an entire state takes notice.

Sanderoff has run Research & Polling Inc., which conducts public policy and political campaign polls, among other initiatives, since the mid-1980s. His results are published in the Albuquerque Journal, and he's a regular political analyst on KOAT-TV, though he answers questions asked by media members statewide.

Respected statistician Nate Silver's FiveThirtyEight recently gave the company an A+ rating, based on the level of accuracy in polling results achieved over time as well as accuracy in polls released in the final 21 days leading up to presidential, general, gubernatorial and congressional races.

Sanderoff said "to be recognized by an independent statistician is a point of pride."

"Our entire business is based on trust," he said. "We don't sell a fancy car — you can't kick the tires and take it for a spin. We sell information. So it has to be accurate; it has to be believable; it has to be credible, so we work hard at that."

His company does not work directly for any political candidate, he said, and it still relies on old-fashioned, telephone-based surveys to do the work.

That formula, he said is critical — adding it's vital any polling survey find a representative sampling of voters to ensure accuracy.

"Sampling bias is when your sample is not representative," he said. "You can survey 100 people or a million but if they all men, all women, all seniors, it wasn't representative."

His agency first finds out from clients what human base they are aiming for. Over the years Research & Polling has purchased a number of customer and voter phone lists from both local governmental agencies and the Secretary of State's Office.

"We call them until we find them," he said of the people who take part in the polls.

A team of 30 professional pollers work the phones using representative data from the lists to gauge voter preferences. He said the vast majority are women in their "40s, 50s and 60s" who tend to "have an easier time getting through to respondents ... than a 20-year-old guy from UNM who is trying to make a few extra bucks."

"Representative" is a word Sanderoff returns to repeatedly. He said a poll of 1,000 representative voters in a state in which over 1 million people are registered to vote is enough to measure accuracy.

"If conducted properly, randomly and representative [polling] will be right within a maximum sampling error of 3%," he said. "What will veer a poll into inaccuracy is not the size of the poll, but representation. If you didn't get the right mix of Hispanics, if you didn't get the right mix of Democrats, if you didn't get the right mix of Republicans or independents, that's when you are going to get into trouble."

He said he is "OK" with criticism that comes with the job. He said over the years he has noticed people are less critical of his agency's polling results. "Somewhere along the way they figured out we have credibility," he said.

Denise Torres, chairwoman of the New Mexico Judicial Performance Evaluation Commission, said the commission has relied on Research & Polling to help with judicial evaluations for years. The work includes questioning judges, attorneys, jurors, judicial staffers and law enforcement officials about the quality of a particular judge's work over time.

"We can glean which judges are doing well and which judges are in trouble [in terms of job performance]," she said, because Research & Polling helps organize the polls and the data to paint a portrait of each judge's qualities.

"They want to get it right," she said of Sanderoff's team, adding she had never before "worked with a group always open to continually improving the process.

"They always make me feel they want to help me," she said, adding that's "not always the case" with some professional entities and individuals.

How Sanderoff got to be king of the hill in New Mexico polling is an interesting story: Born in Queens, N.Y., he came here at the age of 17 after seeing a University of New Mexico catalogue with a color photo of the Sandia Mountains.

"The West was a calling for me," he recalled. "I came out here, and I never went back."

He studied political science at the University of New Mexico. In one course, he was required to participate in a political campaign. He ended up working for former state lawmaker Tom Rutherford's campaign for lieutenant governor in the late 1970s.

Former Gov. Bruce King hired Sanderoff as part of his campaign staff. He then hired Sanderoff as part of his administrative staff once he won election.

Because he was operating in the world of politics, Sanderoff became "a user of public opinion polls." He decided, he explained in the course of a sentence or two, to move from being a user of polls to someone conducting them.

From that inspiration, Research & Polling was born.

Sanderoff said only about a quarter of all his company's work is geared toward political polling and policies. The rest is generally for private or public entities and the internal work he does for them is generally proprietary — like conducting patient satisfaction surveys for health care organizations or generating a report on the economic impact of the state's national laboratories on small businesses.

As a result, most of the time, Sanderoff — who said he prefers solitary walks through the Bosque in Albuquerque or just hanging out at home with his cat, Morris — can remain behind the scenes.

But come election time — the next big one is November 2024 — Sanderoff will be in the limelight again.

He notes his job tends to create a distance between him and the world.

"The job isolates me," he said, adding he and his team have to avoid getting too close to anyone they work for or with to avoid any question of conflict of interest. "There's a sense of responsibility in the job that keeps me from getting out more and mingling with the world as much as I might want to do."

And he avoids any personal political talk regarding candidates or sitting political leaders.

When someone asks him who he plans to vote for in the next election, he replies, "Well, whoever's ahead in our poll."

That's a joke, he added.