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The Power of Words
Learning About Political Polls Posted:11.05.02
Politicians and pundits use political polls to find out what voters are thinking. One group of high school students learned the ins and outs of political polls by surveying voters in their own community.
Students from Marquette High School in St. Louis learned first-hand the fundamentals of political polling and sneaked a peak into the minds of voters.
As a part of their coursework in Eva Johnston's AP Politics and Government class, 78 students from three class periods surveyed voters about one of the most fiercely-fought contests of this election cycle.
The too-close-to-call U.S. Senate race in Missouri, pitting incumbent Democrat Jean Carnahan against Republican Jim Talent, a former U.S. congressman, could decide the balance of power in the Senate.
The students took the pulse of the electorate on candidate preference and identification with candidates' stated positions, and learned that it's not easy to conduct a good poll.
They began by learning the elements of scientific polling:
Hitting the Streets and Evaluating Response
After learning the basics, groups of six students canvassed parts of their Western St. Louis County community asking key questions about the Carnahan-Talent bout and recording and evaluating the responses.
The students realized from the beginning that many of the respondents might favor Rep. Talent because the community is located within Talent's former congressional district.
Talent did win overwhelmingly in the overall poll. However, the students got some interesting and sometimes surprising insight into the minds of voters.
From the beginning the students were careful to separate the issue position questions from those about candidate preference. On the issue questions, students would simply state both candidates' positions, without revealing which candidate held which position, and ask respondents to choose the position they agreed with most.
"Although Talent won handily many students were surprised how well Sen. Carnahan had polled. Another surprise was how many people sided with the position of one candidate but then said they were going to vote for the other candidate," Johnston reported.
Some voters, for example, agreed with Carnahan's position on raising the minimum wage and welfare reform, but still picked Talent as their candidate.
The students drew two conclusions about the instances where potential voters' views on an issue didn't match their candidate preference:
"Those issues may not have been salient to the people polled or that they did not know which position the candidates had taken," Johnston wrote.
Some of the students' more interesting findings:
Learning From the Project, Educating the Community
The overall experience was positive, according to Johnston. Students said the project "was worthwhile and that I should continue it for future classes."
Johnston wrote that one of the goals of the project, besides educating students about and engaging them in political polling, was to get people in the community to think about the election.
"Three hundred and thirty-some citizens of West St. Louis county will no doubt pay a little more attention to this election because a high school student asked them about it," Johnston wrote. "An additional seed of interest was planted and democracy will continue to grow."
General Poll Results:
* If the election were held today who would you vote for?
Talent: 189/332 or 57%
Other: 13/332 or 4%
Undecided: 16/332 or 5%
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