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Harvey Wilhelm
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Grinnell National Poll results released

The College recently released the first ever national level poll, the development and administration of which has been in the works since early this summer.

The poll sought to answer a wide range of questions about Americans’ attitudes towards different social and political issues. For example, one question asked participants whether or not they intended to vote for President Trump in 2020, and another asked the participants’ opinions on NFL players kneeling during the national anthem.

“I think the College started to consider this project after Ann Selzer’s visit to the school last year,” said Professor Peter Hanson, political science. “Out of those discussions, I think we started to see some real advantages for Grinnell. [We saw] some opportunities to participate in the national conversation about politics, to create learning opportunities for students, to create research opportunities for faculty.”

Hanson, together with Professor Barbara Trish, political science, Professor Xavier Escandell, anthropology and head of the Data Analysis and Social Inquiry Lab (DASIL), famous pollster Ann Selzer, a group of other faculty and students, formed a group and became the main force behind the polling project.

One of the first steps in the project was the designing of the questionnaire and determining the questions that would be on it. The questionnaire itself was drafted by Ann Selzer but the input of the other members of the team was important in determining the nature of it nonetheless.

“Ann [Selzer] actually drafted the questionnaire, that’s what she does and she does it very well, but there was a lot of back and forth between her and the people at the College about the actual questions,” said Trish.

Together, the group designed the poll’s format, determined which questions to ask and conducted statistical analysis. Many of the questions asked were relatively standard, but there was some room for creativity and originality as well.

“The one [question] that got our attention the most, is that we asked our respondents whether they would definitely vote for Donald Trump again for president or not. Only 36 percent of Americans said they would definitely vote for President Trump. 43 percent said they would definitely not,” Hanson said.

Hanson noted that pollsters usually ask respondents whether they approve of the president rather than whether they intend to vote for the president again, making this question a relatively unique one.

Moreover, the implications of the answers were quite significant. Hanson indicated that one implication of this was that Trump probably had a relatively uphill battle to get reelected, as he would be “starting out underwater,” so to speak.

The specific methodology of the poll was a particularly important element to work out. The sample size was 1000 and the individuals in the sample were contacted by telephone, both landline and mobile.

“One thousand is kind of a standard sample size if you want to draw inferences to the larger U.S. population,” Trish said.

There were also attempts made to weight the sample. Weighting occurs for the purpose of determining the opinion of the general public, rather than just those who responded to the poll, on the issues.

“The reason you do that, is if you do a random sample of Americans, what you’ll find is that you are less likely to reach people who are young, people who are less educated and people who are poor,” Hanson said. “So in order to get a proper read on public attitudes you weight the survey for the fact that you’re less likely to reach certain groups.”

The faculty who were part of the consultative group were part of a wide range of disciplines and many of them had particular interests and uses for the polling data. For example, Professor Sarah Purcell, history, is especially interested in making a comparison of modern polling methods to ways of measuring public opinion from the 19th century.

“Historians can study newspaper articles [from the 19th century]; we study letters to the editor, we try to look at letters and diaries, and we sort of have to go back and recreate what people were thinking, but without it having any kind of statistical representation,” Purcell said.

The polling project as a whole is still not complete, as there are intentions to conduct another poll following the midterm elections, largely in order to measure changes in public attitudes.

“There’s a second survey coming out after the election,” Hanson said.  “And we want to continue the collaborative process as we write it.”

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