Political Polling as Much an Art as a Science
Undergraduate students in USC College’s practicum course in American politics took to the phones, but not to call or text their friends.
“We persevered even though we received many hang-ups, no answers and ‘take me off your list’ responses,” said Alex Vanroekel, a double major in political science and economics.
Vanroekel, along with 24 classmates under the direction of professor of political science Jane Junn, spent the fall semester talking to 1,500 California voters in conjunction with USC College/Los Angeles Times statewide public opinion polls. The cooperative venture between USC College and the newspaper began in November 2009 and concluded with a sixth poll following the 2010 gubernatorial and senatorial election.
Junn said that the student-run polls or “2010 UVote Poll” that supplemented the USC College/Los Angeles Times polls were a study in political behavior and public opinion.
In the first of three polls, the class focused on the impact of undecided voters. For the second poll, students reinterviewed voters already engaged from the USC College/Los Angeles Times September poll to analyze the role of emotions in politics and the impact of voter choice.
The final poll was a post-election study that centered on media usage, civic engagement and educational policy.
“Public opinion polling is both an art and a science,” Junn said. “The students gained experience in gathering and analyzing data, interviewing respondents, synthesizing the information in a meaningful way for a press release and talking to the media. They ran the gamut of tasks in the same way professional survey researchers do in marketing, politics and public health research.”
In addition to learning what was behind the numbers, Melinda Amato, a double major in sociology and political science, was most interested in the disparities in public education. “I learned that I cared a lot about Latino voters and that I want to spend more time with the Latino electorate,” she said. “The class also helped me to see how I can affect change.”
Political science major Sarkis Haroutunian enjoyed speaking with the voters. “Politics has an influence on everyday life that extends beyond politics and government into every aspect of society,” he said.
Haroutunian said that data tells a story. “Statistical tools helped uncover the concerns of the voters and reveal why they voted for a candidate – the story behind the study.”
The students glowingly commented about Junn and graduate assistant Míchel Martinez, a former USC Renaissance Scholar who completed her undergraduate degree in political science and photography at USC and who is now pursuing a Ph.D.
“The experience for me as a teacher’s assistant exceeded my expectations,” Martinez said. “I was immersed in survey research and quantitative methods and consider that a bonus.”
“When I first began working with professor Junn, I told her that I didn’t know anything about polling, and she told me that ‘you won’t know it until you do it.’ ”
Martinez appreciated the qualitative aspects of the survey, especially in terms of the thoughtful comments about why people thought the state of California was in trouble. “People responded with meaningful comments that extended beyond partisan identification, ideology or support of a particular candidate.”
“In a state as diverse as California, we conducted interviews in Spanish as well as English to ensure that we reached the Spanish speaking-only population,” said Amato, one of three bilingual Spanish callers in the class.
“The first poll was developed by professionals and faculty; the second was developed by faculty and graduate and undergraduate students,” Amato said. “But the third was ours to develop.”
Nik Hulewsky, a double major in political science and economics, may switch his future plans from becoming a lawyer to pursuing a career as a political consultant as a result of the experience.
“I don’t think this opportunity could be offered anywhere but USC,” Hulewsky said. “We are in the middle of Los Angeles, the heart of action, we have the Los Angeles Times a couple miles away, a very experienced professor and some of the biggest players, both politically and journalistically, in the country’s largest state.”
Hulewsky is interested in changing the world and making politics less partisan. “We are Americans first and we need to work together, nationally and globally,” he added.
Junn believes the mission of a university is to provide a public service and to educate students on how to produce basic and applied research.
“A great research university has students and faculty with the creativity and capacity to devise their own strategies, become great interviewers, analyze data quickly and speak with poise to the press,” Junn said. “A study of this type places a good deal of faith in the students to engage in the best social scientific methods to get the answers, and that faith was rewarded in an unbelievable way by the performance of the students.”
“I was impressed with the media coverage that the USC College/Los Angeles Times poll received,” Vanroekel said. “I have great respect for Nate Silver, a New York Times politics blogger, who wrote that our poll turned out to be ‘right on the money in projecting the Senate and gubernatorial races.’”
The students, a diverse group who altogether speak seven different languages, all checked “yes” as to the practicum experience’s enhancement of their intellectual and professional development.
“Through their work, the students have and will continue to provide a vital public service to California voters and elected officials,” Junn said.