Over the summer, as two teenagers from the Philadelphia suburbs joked about the inaccuracy of some political polls, they speculated they could do the job just as well.
A few short months and a midterm election later, high school juniors Lucca Ruggieri and Arhan Kaul have nine polls to their name after forming Patriot Polling, a nonpartisan polling operation that has been recognized by FiveThirtyEight, the ABC-owned data journalism website viewed as a chief gatekeeper of political polling.
The origin of Patriot Polling began on a train ride to a summer fellowship boot camp in Philadelphia, hosted by The Germination Project, a Philadelphia nonprofit focused on fostering collaboration between the region’s young leaders.
While Ruggieri and Kaul had a mutual friend, they didn’t know each other well before meeting at the boot camp. Ruggieri is a junior at Great Valley High School in Malvern, Chester County; Kaul is a junior at Spring-Ford Area High School in Montgomery County. The two live about 30 minutes apart.
After meeting through the program, they bonded over their shared interest in politics. Ruggieri, Patriot Polling’s executive director, holds a particular interest in the electoral side of politics, while Kaul, the chief polling director, is interested in data analysis and quantitative thinking. The two quickly realized their skills could work well together.
Ruggieri said after initially tossing around the idea in a tongue-in-cheek manner on the train, they took it to the boot camp and revisited the possibility of doing their own polling. “I called him up and I said, ‘Would you be interested in starting this?’ And he agreed,” Ruggieri said. “From there on, we just started getting set up. We released a couple of polls and we got a lot of attention on social media.”
Kaul agreed that their respective interests in data science and politics laid the groundwork for the project to succeed.
“When he approached me, I realized that this was a great combination of both of our skills, my data analysis and quantitative thinking abilities, critical thinking skills, and his understanding of politics and his way of explaining it in simple terms,” Kaul said.
While the two had a basic understanding of how political polling worked, they also had some research to do. Ruggieri consulted a teacher and also communicated with local Republican and Democratic organizations to gain an understanding of the intricacies of polling. Online resources and forums also helped the two sharpen their knowledge of polling, with Kaul adding that his statistics courses laid a solid foundation to conduct the surveys.
Soon enough, with the help of a service to outsource the calls, they were polling thousands of people on Pennsylvania’s races for governor and U.S. Senate, as well as other statewide races in New York, Arizona and Wisconsin.
Some of Patriot Polling’s surveys showed results similar to those of the nation’s more established pollsters. Their final poll of the U.S. Senate race, for example, showed Republican candidate Dr. Mehmet Oz leading by 3% during the first week of November. During that same week, polls from Fox 29/Insider Advantage and The Trafalgar Group had Oz up by 2%, while Remington Research had Oz leading by 3%.
Pollsters had differing margins in the leadup to the state’s gubernatorial election, though every major poll – Patriot Polling included – called the race for the eventual winner, Democrat Josh Shapiro. Patriot Polling had Shapiro up by 6% in early November. Fox 29/Insider Advantage had Shapiro up by eight points, while Muhlenberg College, Susquehanna Polling & Research and Marist got Shapiro’s 14-point margin of victory right.
Soon after developing the project, Patriot Polling’s surveys gained traction on social media, and eventually caught the attention of FiveThirtyEight.
Ruggieri said that someone from the company asked for Patriot Polling’s methodology and proof that the polls were legitimate. He sent along the requested information – and then found out that Patriot’s data was being included in FiveThirtyEight’s polling aggregate.
“I was really just shocked because this was sort of something that we did as a pastime, almost more of a hobby, and then we got included into the premier polling aggregate,” Ruggieri said. “So that really shot this up in our list of priorities.”
According to FiveThirtyEight, polls must include the name of the pollster, the timeframe when it was conducted, sample sizes and information about the surveyed population in order to be included in the outlet’s polling database.
Mary Radcliffe, a senior research associate with FiveThirtyEight, said many polls included in FiveThirtyEight’s database are conducted by college students under the watch of their respective schools, but suggested that the inclusion of high school pollsters is more rare.
“We had two groups of high school students release surveys this cycle that were included in our aggregate,” Radcliffe said. “There are many polls conducted by college students, but typically these are under the supervision of university faculty and are usually credited to the university in our aggregate.”
In addition to Patriot Polling, students from Phillips Academy in Andover, Massachusetts also conducted surveys that were included in FiveThirtyEight’s aggregate, Radcliffe said.
Kaul said he enjoyed being able to put his interest in qualitative analysis to use in a real-world setting. “I didn’t really see a use for it outside of writing research papers and things like that,” he said, noting that Patriot Polling allowed him to put his statistics knowledge to use in a practical manner that is often relied on by politicians.
Ruggieri said he enjoyed learning how political polling works from the inside. “It just was really enlightening to me to see how this process works, because polls are such a big factor in elections,” he said. “I would say they’re almost even a part of the democratic process now, because so much stuff is judged through polling.”
With graduation approaching in the next few years, the two students both have an eye on the future. Kaul said he plans to major in data science or statistics. He said he wants to do quantitative analysis work, and that he’s open to a variety of industries and opportunities.
Ruggieri said he’s always had a deep interest in politics and foreign affairs, and plans to go to school for political science or foreign affairs. He said he might even run for public office one day.
But before that time comes, there are a few more polls to conduct, including on the Georgia U.S. Senate runoff, surveys on presidential approval ratings and polls leading up to the 2024 presidential election.“I think we’re just gonna keep on going. I don’t know how long this will go on,” said Ruggieri, who noted that the impact of Patriot Polling surpassed even their expectations. “It turned into something a lot bigger than what we thought it would.”