Polls produced by students reveal shifting attitudes

By: Bill Steele,  Cornell Chronicle

As Bob Dylan reminded us, the times they are a-changing. According to a Cornell University poll, young adults are much more likely to report that they will be politically active over the next few years, compared with everyone over 25. As a result, the pollsters said, “The U.S. will have a significantly different political climate in the future.”

This and related polls show that younger citizens are taking more liberal positions. More of them want action on climate change; most are accepting of gay marriage; and they consider alcohol a more dangerous drug than marijuana.

Significantly, these polls were conducted by young adults, in the course “Taking America’s Pulse” (Govt/Comm 3189), where students design, conduct and analyze a real public opinion poll. The course is taught jointly by Peter Enns, associate professor of government, and Jonathon Schuldt, assistant professor of communication. It is an interdisciplinary “university course,” open to students in any college.

After selecting  topics, framing questions and refining them in class discussion, the students receive training in interviewing techniques from the Cornell Survey Research Institute, which provides phone facilities to connect student interviewers to a nationwide random sample of adults, a cross-section of the population.

The questions developed by students are combined into one long poll administered in about a half-hour interview. Respondents are also asked demographic questions – age, gender, income level, political affiliation and so on – that can be correlated with their opinions. Catholics, for example, said they are accepting of gay marriage more often than Protestants; Republicans are less concerned about climate change. Understanding of climate change increases with educational level.

Sometimes it depends on how you ask the question. If men are asked “Do you consider yourself to be a feminist?” 48 percent say yes or at least somewhat. But if the question is preceded by a definition of feminism – “belief in the social, political and economic equality of the sexes” – 65 percent of men respond positively.

That’s part of what the class is about, the instructors point out. While knowing how to conduct a poll can be a valuable job skill, knowing how to evaluate polls taken by others is also important. Examining how questions are asked and understanding what happens during telephone conversations with respondents contributes to the ability to view poll results with a critical eye.

Several questions in the poll were presented in two different forms to separate groups and the results compared. When a question about climate change was preceded by “scientists have predicted irreversible changes to Earth’s climate by 2030…” a little more than 50 percent favored government action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. But when the year was changed to 2100 at least 60 percent got on board. The pollsters speculated that if the cutoff date was too soon, people would think that the government couldn’t do anything about it anyway.

The last challenge in the class is to write – and if possible, publish – an op-ed article based on the results of the poll. Some of these contributions can be seen in the Cornell Daily Sun.

Many students apparently pulled their questions from the headlines, but for some it was personal. Travis Ghirdharie ’17, who grew up in a disadvantaged inner-city neighborhood, asked if people believe children from low-income backgrounds have equal career opportunities. Sixty percent of respondents said yes, in sharp contrast with the real world, where only 9 percent of those children graduate from college. “The absence of public awareness is insidious,” Ghirdharie wrote in a guest commentary in the Ithaca Journal, “because there can be no change on an issue that is not recognized by the public.”

Perhaps the growing population of politically active young adults will pay more attention.

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