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The Numbers Guy

A headshot of G. Elliot Morris

G. Elliott Morris couldn’t have predicted the arc of his career back when he was a first-year student at The University of Texas at Austin. The Texas native came to the university partially to stay close to family, and partially because he had been in policy debate in high school and liked UT’s program. “That’s not necessarily what I pursued when I was at school, but that’s why I decided to go,” he says with a laugh.

Instead, a pivotal class and research experiences supported by the Office of Undergraduate Research (OUR), including an Undergraduate Research Fellowship, jumpstarted a fascination with polling. Since graduating in 2018 with degrees in government and history, he has joined the staff of The Economist as a data journalist and U.S. correspondent and, in July 2022, published his first book, Strength in Numbers: How Polls Work and Why We Need Them. He has returned to the Forty Acres several times over the past few years as a guest lecturer and now sits down with OUR to discuss how he got to where he is—and how current Longhorns can follow in his footsteps.

What got you interested in polling, specifically?
I wasn’t really interested in elections or polling until my sophomore year. The 2016 election—my sophomore year was the primary. It was a very active political time on campus. I was taking a class on the American presidency by a government professor named Chris Wlezien, who’s a good friend of mine now. He had a class where he talked about the Iowa Electronic Market, which is a website where people could bet on politics for academic research and predict outcomes. I was totally fascinated by this. So I did some research work for him, and I started reading lots of the polling and prediction websites and it all kind of just came naturally to me. I started studying and writing about it in my spare time and that’s when it all clicked.

How long was it between having that revelation of, “Oh, this is a really exciting subject” to doing undergraduate research?
A matter of months. I think I instantly asked if I could help with some research during office hours or maybe Dr. Wlezien suggested that I help and that they would pay me for it. I was a college kid, so if I’m getting paid to read books or write something, then of course I’m going to do it. [Laughs] From about that second semester of my sophomore year, I did research jobs for my professors every semester on the side. I miss it! It was really fun.

What drove the decision to pursue data journalism?
I only didn’t get a Ph.D. because I got a job offer when I was in my senior year. After the 2016 election, my election prediction model that I built to learn how to code was just as wrong as everyone else’s. As a research motivation but also to keep going with that type of work, there were a couple of upcoming elections where I was like, “Let’s prove that, on average, these sorts of predictions are useful. Let’s do the same thing in other countries.” So I had been publishing forecasts for upcoming UK and French elections. Some people at The Economist saw it and were like, “Come out for an interview.” And then I got the job and that’s how I ended up where I am.

Getting the job in journalism totally derailed my plans and ended up being a really good turn of events. You have your path and then some event will happen, and it pushes you on a new path or maybe you skip four or five steps that you thought you might have to make along the way. It’s really unpredictable. You have to be open to that.

What is the day-to-day of a data journalist like?
Day-to-day, I work remotely with our team in London. So I’ll wake up and sync up with them on any number of ongoing projects. That could be our election forecasting models—making sure they’re still running, that nothing broke overnight while I was sleeping, while they were sleeping. There’s a good amount of maintenance every day and that’s kind of the doldrums of the job. It’s stuff that we have to do every single day to reap the rewards of our work. But that work is really the most interesting thing to me.

The Economist also has our graphic detail section and that’s our visual data journalism. It’s basically our opportunity to do original social science research, which is what I wanted to do before I got into journalism. That’s the fun part, where I get to ask any question I want about the news and find data and present a story to people, and we work with our visualizers on how to best present that story. That’s another thing that I’m doing not necessarily every day but working on a two- or three-week timeline.

And then there’s the big new projects that we have developing over four- or five-month timelines—stuff like our election forecasts, where we do a lot of work researching the methods we want to use, compiling the data that we need to train our statistical models, training those models, talking to academics who’ve done this stuff before to make sure we’re doing it in a reasonable way and that our estimates make sense. Then we’ll work with interactive designers to build websites for them where people can go and look at the results.

What muscles did writing your book stretch that are different from your day-to-day work?
The book was more what I was doing when I was in college—which was original research, lots of academic reading—to write this narrative about how polls got developed and why they have this higher purpose in a democracy than just election prediction. And those muscles had atrophied a little bit. I was lucky that UT actually provided some support—my old professor, Bethany Albertson, helped me become a research assistant so that I could have access to the library for some of my own research, which was great. I helped her with some projects, and she helped me by getting me access to the academic library again.

I also got to practice a lot of the writing I was doing at work. The Economist is a pretty short magazine—the stories are anywhere from 500 to a thousand words on average. That’s not a lot of space to write, so I had to learn a lot about structure in my writing, about how to craft narratives with characters to make the book interesting. That’s very different than the approach I have with journalism, which is: “Here are the facts, here’s some analysis that I think people will be interested in or that they’re missing.”

How does it feel to return to campus as a lecturer after graduating?
I’ve been honored that universities are interested in what I’m doing and that my old professors hold me in high esteem. As someone who still considers themselves a researcher, it also really helps me, in a selfish way, to talk to those professors and those students about what I’m working on. They always have ideas for how to make it better, without fail. Even if it’s something you’ve thought about for years, someone coming to this idea with fresh eyes and ears can always think about some way to improve it or see something you haven’t thought about before.

The support I got from some of my professors after I moved to D.C. was also really instrumental in pushing me to write the book. And I think the lesson there is that most professors are really passionate about the success of their students, even after they leave. Going back to that well after you leave—for advice, for letters, for recommendations for grad school, etc.—is not only helpful, but I think the professors also really want to do that for you. Don’t feel like you’re imposing on these people to ask for advice or help.

Do you have any additional advice for current Longhorns?
There’s no substitute for a good mentor figure—someone to help you make the hard decisions you have to make when you’re entering the workforce or finding out what you want to do. That could be a professor or could be someone who’s already graduated, who has done what you want to do. Their advice is invaluable.

People who want to go into journalism or do research jobs—find some rough research questions you’re interested in. For me, it was “How do people make decisions about politics?” and “Can we predict those decisions ahead of time?” Do research with your professors. They always have research going on, they always need help. Sometimes they’ll even pay you, which is great because then you can not eat ramen. [Laughs] Or maybe you can have good ramen.

It’s great to have a sample of your research for grad schools or, in my case, newspapers that are also doing research. The best thing you can do is put a portfolio up online. Write a blog that’s like, “Here’s what I’m working on, here are the findings, here’s how I did it.” That speaks volumes to admissions committees for grad schools or future employers—to be able to look at what you can do.

And then the last thing I was going to say is in the latest New York Times Siena College poll—the numbers show that young people have a whole lot of weight that they can throw around in national elections. So the advice there is just to vote, right?

Interested in doing your own undergraduate research? You could receive up to $1,000 in funding for a scholarly research project by applying for an Undergraduate Research Fellowship! The spring 2023 deadline to apply is Monday, Jan. 23.