Mileah Kromer had thought of everything. Or so she thought. She had sharpened her political polling and branding skills under Elon University professor Hunter Bacot, who’d developed a national reputation for excellence as the director of the North Carolina school’s renowned polling operation. Hired by Goucher College to direct the Sarah T. Hughes Field Politics Center and launch Goucher’s own Maryland polling operation in 2012, Kromer had done an enormous amount of work to get the school’s first-ever poll out a week before the elections that fall. Beyond the careful formulation of questions and statistical modeling, she built a phone center on campus from scratch and hired and trained students to make calls, all while maintaining a full-time teaching schedule. The stakes were high, too. Included in that inaugural poll were questions about same-sex marriage and the expansion of casino gambling, which were both on the ballot. Also in that first Goucher Poll were a host of questions about how Marylanders felt about undocumented immigrants. Should they be able to pay in-state tuition? Should they be allowed to keep their jobs and pursue a path toward U.S. citizenship? So, too, were favorability queries about President Barack Obama, challenger Mitt Romney, and Governor Martin O’Malley.
Kromer spent days tabulating the results and quadruple-checking the numbers, and then crafted a press release. She took a deep breath, and a week before the election, hit “send” to a long list of local news organizations and media contacts on Monday morning as planned. But there was one thing she hadn’t considered: Superstorm Sandy hit Baltimore that same morning. Sort of. The city basically escaped unscathed. Not that you would’ve known it from television coverage.
“I was watching WBAL that morning and the whole time, they’ve got someone down at the Inner Harbor saying, ‘It’s windy, it’s very windy,’ but meanwhile nothing is really happening,” Kromer recalls. “I’m like, ‘C’mon, you can cut away for two minutes and show the results of the poll.’ They never did. More shots of the wind. It was so frustrating. Everyone had done so much work. A couple of days later, I heard from [Daily Record reporter] Bryan Sears, who was then at Patch.com. He said, ‘I saw you released a poll.’ He was the only reporter who called. To do all that work and then it was like nothing happened. It was so frustrating. I was like, ‘Never again.’
“Now I check the weather along with everything else.”
Eight years from that less than auspicious launch, each biannual Goucher Poll is now diligently reported and hashed over by The Baltimore Sun, Baltimore Business Journal, Daily Record, Baltimore Brew, Baltimore Fishbowl, local radio and television outlets, as well as this magazine, and has become an institution in state politics and journalism circles. The highly respected survey has also been cited by national outlets, including The New York Times, The Atlantic, FiveThirtyEight, and RealClearPolitics. In the process—or rather, integral to that process—Kromer has also become a go-to analyst for Maryland’s political reporters. Journalists know that whether their query relates to the Baltimore mayoral primary, a key General Assembly race, or contentious state issue, she’ll answer her cell phone or quickly reply to an email and offer an informed, balanced take. And if she can’t—that is, if it’s a breaking story or controversy she’s not comfortable weighing in on—she’ll say so upfront, which earns her an equal amount of respect. (“She doesn’t get over her skies,” says Sears.)
Kromer, who is lively and conversational by nature, also appears regularly on public affairs programs such as Midday on WYPR and 11 TV Hill. All of which is to say she has made the Goucher Poll a trusted brand—and made a name for herself (she was recently listed by The Daily Record as one the state’s Most Influential Marylanders)—by a combination of smarts and experience, but also through old-fashioned hard work and hustle. Lots of hustle.
“THE GOUCHER POLL IS A GOOD EXAMPLE OF SOMETHING FILLING A NEED.”
Robert Lang, who hosts the weekday 5 a.m. show on WBAL Radio, asked early on if she could release the poll at midnight. That way, he explained, he could get it right on the air, first thing. Kromer’s response was, ‘No problem, Robert.’”
“The Goucher Poll is a good example of something filling a need—we see national polls all time. Every two days, it seems there is another one,” says former Sun Pulitzer Prize winner and current New York Times political reporter Luke Broadwater, who hosted a podcast with Kromer during the 2019 General Assembly. “What we don’t see enough of are polls that focus on state races, and especially state issues. As a reporter, it matters, because it means you now have data when you talk about the issues with people and elected officials.”
Kromer, 39, grew up in Homer City, Pennsylvania, population 1,710, about 50 miles east of Pittsburgh. She loves her hometown, where her mother still resides, and which she visits frequently. It’s three and a half hours from Baltimore. Demographically and politically, it is another world. “There were 80 students in my graduating class and kids at my high school came from smaller towns and villages miles away,” she says. “These days, there are a lot of Donald Trump signs,” she adds, by way of further comparison to mostly “Blue” Maryland. At the same time, she believes the contrast between her hometown and her adopted one informs her work.
That said, the COVID-19 pandemic has made going home to rural Pennsylvania a little trickier to navigate.
“The not-wearing-a-mask thing is just frustrating,” Kromer says. “My family and friends mean everything to me, and I don’t understand how wearing a mask has become political where I grew up. I don’t want my mother, or my friends’ parents, many of whom I’m also close with, getting sick. How can other people be willing to put them at risk?”
Baltimore, meanwhile, has proven ideally suited to her personally and professionally. “Geographically, it’s in the center of the state, and the media is here,” Kromer says. “Plus, it’s a short drive and you’re in the country.”
The décor in the two-story townhouse Kromer shares with husband Michael Madden (he’s a financial manager) reflects her love of national parks, as well as civics. Their living room is full of photos from around the country and there’s a map of pins indicating each place they’ve visited. “Our goal is to visit every national park,” Kromer says, with a smile and sigh, an acknowledgement of current restrictions. For a political junkie for whom politics is work as well as “infotainment,” traveling offers a respite and opens the lens of an American life up a bit. “I love this country and think it’s beautiful,” Kromer says, adding, “just in case that isn’t clear.”
The science behind good polling is critical, but, in theory, not that difficult to grasp. First, polling within an acceptable margin of error requires a broad enough sample as to serve as a representation of the community being surveyed. Mathematics can, to an extent, help balance the demographics of the survey sample against the real demographics of a city, state, or country. The real art comes in the writing of the questions.
“Will people support more spending on education if you poll them?” Kromer says. “Every time. If you ask them do you support more spending on education if it requires higher taxes? Well, that’s a much different question.”
Candidate-approval questions are no- brainers during an election cycle, but what about recreational marijuana? Euthanasia? Medicare for All? Kromer has a knack for getting relevant issues in front of Marylanders, and the results are closely tracked by politicos around the state. The most recent poll this fall included questions about COVID-19 and defunding and reallocating police spending.
“[IF YOU DON’T] HAVE THE POLL NUMBERS THAT YOU’D LIKE, IT JUST MEANS YOU HAVE MORE WORK TO DO.”
“I know for a fact that legislators and aides discuss the results and what they mean,” says Democratic strategist Sophia Silbergeld, a friend of Kromer’s. “It’s not going to decide which position they take, but it will tell them how much of a fight they are in for. Advocates follow the poll, too. If they see they are way ahead, they might decide they don’t need to spend more money. If it’s close, they may decide they need to put in more resources.”
State Delegate Brooke Lierman, another friend, admits she became nervous when she learned a polystyrene ban was going to be polled before last year’s General Assembly. “I had worked on a Styrofoam ban bill for several years, and we finally had the support to pass it,” Lierman recalls. “So I was worried what would happen if it didn’t poll well. The bill’s opponents would suddenly have something to point to. Fortunately, that wasn’t the case.”
It should also not be lost on anyone—and it’s certainly not on Silbergeld, Lierman, or Kromer—that the Goucher professor has created another role for women in politics in the state. (When Mattel announced a new collection of Barbie dolls this year, featuring a candidate, a campaign manager, a campaign fundraiser, and a voter, Kromer, who does not lack for a sense of humor, tweeted “Pollster Barbie is missing and obviously, I hate it.”) Kromer also acknowledges that her quick rise in Baltimore was made a little easier because it coincided with the retirement of a couple of well-regarded, media-friendly male political science professors who local journalists had long relied on, notably former Johns Hopkins University professor Matthew Crenson and former McDaniel College professor Herb Smith.
“Herb Smith called her, admiringly, something like ‘Political Analyst 2.0,’” Broadwater recalls. “Like he was the 1.0 version and the times had changed.”
Polling, in general, took a public beating in 2016 after Donald Trump upset Hillary Clinton. It should be noted that many of the polls in the key battleground states that Trump won—Wisconsin, Michigan, and Kromer’s home state of Pennsylvania—were within the margin of error by election night. National political polling gets rapped for its relentless focus on the “horse race” aspect of elections rather than say, policy debates and decisions.
To Kromer, the value of polling, in particular issue polling, is that it provides everyone—legislators, activists, and voters—with a snap- shot of public opinion. That seems obvious. But it also means that, over time, polls can be tracked to follow trends in public opinion, which do change, sometimes even quickly.
Not surprisingly, Kromer also has to deal with spin and pushback from candidates and political organizations. She understands it’s part of the fray, but also feels candidates and activists sometimes miss the opportunity that high quality, objective polling presents, which goes to the heart of what she does and why.
“If the issue that you’re fighting for as an advocate, or the candidate that you support does not have the poll numbers that you’d like, it just means you have work to do,” Kromer says. “I do wish more people would view polls that way. Politics is supposed to be the art of persuasion. Democracy is not supposed to be about choosing sides, but about building consensus and governing by consensus. I mean, that’s where we lost our way isn’t it?”