Students Gain In-Depth Experience as Political Pollsters

An illustration of a red elephant and a blue donkey standing behind a bar graph showing red and blue results at different heights.
Jessica Tanny

Move over, Gallup.

In a new course offered last semester, Brandeis students created and analyzed a national poll of the American electorate on such issues as gun control, health care and climate change.

The course, taught by Amber Spry, assistant professor of African and African American studies and politics, was called Polling the American Electorate. Each student developed a research question that the class collaboratively combined into a survey, which also asked demographic questions about respondents’ age, race, gender, income, religiosity and education level. Dynata, a polling service, administered the survey to 700 Americans nationwide.

At the end of the semester, students analyzed their own original data. “Though most of the students did not have prior experience in quantitative data analysis, they are currently performing at the level of professionals in this field and are now all certified in human-subject testing,” says Spry.

Willa Moen ’23, an Ashland, Oregon, native, examined racial attitudes toward gun ownership. Her research showed race plays a bigger role than ideology in determining someone’s view of gun ownership, with whites being generally more favorable toward gun ownership than nonwhites. According to the data, “people of color in America are disproportionately affected by gun policy and are consequently more likely to be wary of gun ownership as it relates to their lived experiences,” she says.

“The rhetoric around gun control is often partisan and characterized by a liberal-conservative divide,” says Spry. “While the research does show that ideological preferences exist, Willa found that race plays an independent and significant role.”

Victoria Sanchez ’23, of Nashua, New Hampshire, tried to identify whether education level affects perception of the climate-change threat. “There was one specific instance where we were able to see a relationship between education and climate change,” she says, “and it’s when we look at those with a college education and those without. But it’s just barely a statistically significant relationship.”

Sanchez’s findings could have a bearing on how policymakers seek to tackle climate-change legislation. “This research is important for thinking about how to influence public attitudes toward climate change,” Spry says. “If education is not really an area that moves attitudes, we have to think about what could be effective.”

Zachary Wilkes ’20, of Cherry Hill, New Jersey, examined how income affects support for universal health care. Although the survey showed universal health care remains a partisan issue, it also showed that a small sector of people who have incomes of $10,000 or less and who identify as moderately conservative will support Medicare for All as much as those who say they are liberal. “The implications are pretty interesting,” Wilkes says. “Although there aren’t likely allyships between liberals and conservatives here, there is a pseudo-allyship between liberals and poor conservatives in relation to Medicare for All.”

Other research centered on welfare spending, religious attitudes toward illegal immigration, marijuana decriminalization, the connection between education level and abortion views, and the connection between gender and perceptions of female political representatives. 

The class also considered the wording and the order of survey questions. “They were thinking in very advanced ways about getting the most out of this questionnaire,” Spry says. “Now they have skills that they can apply in a future job. These skills — data analysis, data programming and survey research — are in high demand for people who come out of Brandeis with social science backgrounds.”

Seeing politics through the eyes of young Americans is compelling, she adds: “My students’ research shows they’ve got important things to say.”

– Julian Cardillo ’14