MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:
Just a few years ago, not many people outside North Carolina knew of a small start-up called Public Policy Polling. It was founded by a Democratic businessman with no political experience. These days, PPP is one of the most prolific polling companies in the country, along with Gallup and Rasmussen.
From North Carolina Public Radio, Jessica Jones has the story of a political start-up turned success story.
JESSICA JONES, BYLINE: If you're a news junkie, you've probably already heard of Public Policy Polling.
(SOUNDBITE OF NEWS CLIPS)
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: A recent Public Policy Polling survey showed Santorum inching in on a long-held Romney lead.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Well, last night, Public Policy Polling released their latest national favorability ratings.
JONES: Just about every talking head from Comedy Central to Fox News knows PPP well. That's a lot of national air time for a relatively new polling firm with only four full-time staff members in Raleigh, North Carolina.
Businessman Dean Debnam is the founder.
DEAN DEBNAM: It's actually taken us since 2001 to get here. And for the first eight or nine years of that, nobody knew who we were.
JONES: Debnam is a soft-spoken, jeans-clad entrepreneur who runs two other successful companies. He started PPP after he got tired of seeing local Republican polls he didn't think were accurate.
DEBNAM: I decided that the highest and best use of my time was to invest in something that made Democrats more competitive in races. And one of the things to do was to make polling more affordable.
JONES: Traditional pollsters like Gallup still use real people to call prospective voters, but that's expensive. So Debnam set aside company phone lines for automated calls. PPP's polls cost as little as $1,500 for clients who range from local school board candidates to big Democratic interest groups.
TOM JENSEN: We have two new dialers going in and that will get us up to being able to make 400,000 phone calls a day.
JONES: Tom Jensen is Public Policy's director of polling. He points to a tall tower of big black metal boxes with thick cables looping out the back.
JENSEN: These are the dialers. These little boxes are what make all of our phone calls.
JONES: For automated polls like this to be successful, tens of thousands of responses must be whittled down into small, perfect voter samples. While traditional pollsters remain wary of this methodology, the firm has acquired a reputation for accuracy.
Emory University political scientist Alan Abramowitz says PPP's methods have made it a real competitor.
ALAN ABRAMOWITZ: They've become the sort of liberal and Democratic alternative to Rasmussen is the way I would describe them.
JONES: Rasmussen is the favorite automated pollster of conservatives. But Abramowitz says Rasmussen suffered accuracy and bias problems in 2010.
ABRAMOWITZ: I think that even if you got an organization like Public Policy Polling, they have a good track record, but you just wonder how long they can maintain that.
JONES: Despite its hard-won reputation, PPP's work for Democrats and liberal groups occasionally raises hackles. A recent example was a poll on Catholic attitudes toward contraception that was sponsored by Planned Parenthood. Although the firm leans Democratic, staffers say they have no qualms about exposing flaws in Democratic causes and candidates in order to strengthen the party.
And Director of Polling Tom Jensen says Public Policy is working hard to maintain its accuracy.
JENSEN: Ultimately, the biggest thing is just experience. For most swing states, we're polling those swing states more than any other polling company in the country. And just the more you poll a certain place, the better you're going to be at it.
JONES: Jensen enjoys putting together wacky polls too, including a survey last year asking independent voters whether they'd support Sarah Palin or Charlie Sheen for president. Charlie Sheen won. But PPP hasn't neglected its original client base of Tar Heel Democrats.
Alan Norman won his first election as a rural sheriff two years ago. He says Tom Jensen's polls helped him identify crucial voters.
ALAN NORMAN: He said, you know, here's your weak area and here's where you need to go. And he gave us the numbers. He said you need to zero in and work harder on 65 and older, retired individuals, such as my parents.
JONES: Norman says, by following PPP's advice, he won the public office he'd always coveted. And Public Policy Polling got what it wanted too: another Democrat in public office.
For NPR News, I'm Jessica Jones in Durham, North Carolina. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.