by Erika Smith, PhD and Nick Gorgievski, PhD
When I first joined the faculty at Nichols College in the fall of 2014, Prof. Nick Gorgievski was assigned as my faculty mentor. Over the last two years Nick and I met to talk about our work at the College, our classes, our relative successes in fantasy football, and our shared passions for teaching in our disciplines, mathematics and political science respectively. We often speculated about the possibility of linking up two courses or developing a new course as a co-teaching opportunity. Advances in statistical theory and methods create new opportunities for the analysis of quantitative and qualitative social science data in fields such as political science, where researchers can apply statistical frameworks in the study of democracy and the relationship between people and policy, at all levels up from the individual to a national and international level.
The release of the fall 2016 schedules presented a unique opportunity. The Registrar assigned both my PSCI 204, “Introduction to Political Science” course and Nick’s MATH 215, “Statistics” course at 8:00A on Thursday mornings in neighboring classrooms in the Academic Building. How could we not take advantage of this great coincidence? (Thanks, Betin!)
I planned to incorporate a significant unit on electoral politics in my PSCI course with the corresponding national, state, and local elections occurring in November. As part of a larger Voter Education Project (V.E.P.) initiated with Director of Student Involvement, Brian Quinlan, we narrowed down the project to a public opinion poll of Nichols College students, staff, and faculty. Although the college had conducted public opinion polls during past elections, this would be the first time the project would be student-driven, a key goal for engagement in the campus-wide V.E.P. Students in PSCI 204 spent class time analyzing polling methods, questions, and data from major statistical agencies such as the Roper Center, Pew Researcher Center, and Gallup. They composed a list of questions regarding political ideology and beliefs (attitudinal), political preferences (engagement), candidates, and basic demographic information and presented the survey to Nick’s MATH class. Using online survey software, students from PSCI recruited members of the Nichols College campus community to complete the survey with the goal of gathering a representative sample.
The online survey opened October 20th and closed on Tuesday, October 25th. We employed a mixed methods sampling approach, first using a convenience sample, opening our survey up to our Math 215 and our PSCI 204 courses. Then, we used a simple random sample approach by sharing the survey with the students, faculty, staff, administration and etc. of the college by way of e-mail. These results were made available Nick’s MATH course to analyze the results from a statistical perspective. The demographics of the survey are as follows:
The survey included a representative sample of political ideologies, with most respondents identifying themselves as political “moderates.” This is perhaps an over-representation of political moderation compared to the American population at large. Americans’ political ideology remained essentially stable over the last year, with conservatives retaining the barest of advantages over moderates in Americans’ self-identified political views, 37% vs. 35%. Liberals held firm at 24%.
If you were to stop and question an American off of the street at random, it’s more likely that he or she would identify as an independent than as a Democrat or a Republican. In recent analyses by Gallup and other polling outlets, 42% of Americans identify as independent, compared with 29% who say they are Democrats and 26% who say they are Republicans. When independents are pressed with follow up questions, most independents lean toward one party or the other — and in 2012, the majority of those leaning independents voted for their preferred party’s presidential candidate. According to the book The Gamble, 90% of Democratic-leaning independents backed Obama in 2012, and 78% of Republican-leaning ones backed Romney.
Participants in the survey reported that they felt generally well-informed about politics and current events (61.62%), with most respondents receiving their information from internet or web-based sources (61.51%). This corresponds with recent studies published by the American Press Institute and political polling outlets. Researchers studying political communication note that more Americans are obtaining political news from social media. In fact, Pew Research Center reported that about half (51%) of social networking users learned about the presidential election from these sites.
Participants in the survey reported engaging in politics in a variety of ways, including engaging in conversation about politics (81.52%), watching television shows that feature political stories (74.64%), voting (59.78%), listening to political media on the radio (49.28%), and sharing stories about politics on social media (43.12%). In a recent study of civic engagement, political scientists at The Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement suggest Millennial students are a generation of college students who have a great deal of experience with volunteering, and who believe in their obligation to work together with others on a variety of social issues.
Over 80% of respondents in our survey reported that they are registered to vote, and 92.63% of respondents stated they believe voting is somewhat important, if not very important. A majority (75.44%) indicated they plan to vote in the November 8th election, with a number of those individuals (36.97%) being first-time voters.
The survey included issue-focused questions on contemporary political questions regarding decriminalization of marijuana, enhanced interrogation, gun ownership, privacy, student debt, climate change, economic issues, healthcare, immigration, and voting rights. In most cases, the attitudes of Nichols College participants mirrored those reflected in larger opinion polls of the American public.
We also paired a series of questions designed to address issues related to gender equity, including the topics of equal pay, paid family leave, and the election of women to higher office. The results were as follows:
According to recent polls commissioned by American Women, the National Partnership for Women & Families and the Rockefeller Family Fund, most Americans support equal pay for women, workplace flexibility through paid sick and family leave and raising the minimum wage. We find similar attitudes on our campus:
- A majority support laws requiring equal pay (91.21%) and paid family leave (86.08%).
- A majority believe a woman is equally qualified to be President of the United States (92.86%).
- A majority expressed a willingness to vote for a woman candidate (88.93%).
Separate from the issues noted above, the survey question, “Q9. Generally speaking, do you think the country is going in the right direction?” generated a strong response from participants (chart below):
This closely mirrored an October 2016 Rasmussen Report, indicating that only 31% of Americans say the U.S. is “heading in the right direction.” Most studies examining public attitudes about government and politics argue that these results defy easy categorization, so we attempted to analyze this data across variables available in our study. First, a two-way contingency table analysis of “Gender” and “Direction” revealed no significant relationship.
A second two-way contingency table analysis was conducted to evaluate whether political ideology differences exist on the perceptions of the direction of our country. Political Ideology and direction were found to be significantly related.
As the table above indicates, among all ideological categories, those individuals who self-identified as “Liberal” had a generally more positive outlook on the question of “Direction.” Using the Holm’s sequential Bonferroni method for controlling Type I error, significant differences were found between those who consider themselves to be “Liberal” and attitudes on whether the country was moving in the right direction.
Similarly, a two-way contingency table analysis was conducted to evaluate whether differences exist between perceptions of the “Direction” of our country and “Age” of respondent. They were, in fact, significantly related.
As the table above indicates, those in the age-bracket of “18-24” reported (70.4%) that they did not believe the country is heading in the right direction, while half of those “25 and older” (50.0%) reported similar feelings.
Participants in the NCPP were asked, “Q12. If the 2016 presidential election was being held today, for whom would you vote?” Responses are depicted in the table below.
Clinton received 33.69% of the respondents’ votes, followed closely by Donald Trump with 25.45%. Many respondents still identified themselves as “Undecided” (15.77%). We chose to explore support for the candidates across variables available in our study, such as “Gender,” “Age,” and “Political Ideology.”
Analysts believe that critical voting blocs of women in the electorate—including millennial women, women of color, and unmarried women—will be a force in the 2016 election. In examining the relationship between “Gender” and candidate preference, a two-way contingency table analysis revealed statistical differences among men and women.
Using the Holm’s sequential Bonferroni method for controlling Type I error, we find significant differences with respect to gender for selection of the two major party candidates. Of those who prefer the Democratic candidate, 70% were female, while those who prefer the Republican candidate, 66.7% were male.
With respect to “Age,” we also found differences in candidate preferences. A two-way contingency table analysis revealed statistically significant results.
Using the Holm’s sequential Bonferroni method for controlling Type I error, significant differences were found in preferences expressed for the two major party candidates. Of those who prefer the Democratic candidate, 51.6% were 25 and older, while those who prefer the Republican candidate, 86.8% were 18 to 24.
The statistical analyses presented above represent a small slice of what data from the 46 questions allow us to study. Even more relevant, Nick and I share the common goal of demonstrating to our students that what we teach them in the classroom has application in the “real world.” Students see these connections more easily with business-related subjects such as marketing, accounting, or management, to name a few. But this specific project in the context of the 2016 election provides us with an avenue to use the information and skills we’re developing in the classroom in a meaningful way. Students gain practical experience researching and evaluating polling data, crafting questions and administering original public opinion polls, and interpreting polling results through the application of course themes and content in our political science course.
Likewise, students enrolled in the MATH 215 course are able to analyze the data using descriptive statistics, which includes frequency tables, bar graphs and pie charts. Additionally, although outside the scope of this introductory statistics course, the students are also exposed to nonparametric statistical methods such as Pearson’s chi-square test. This exposure enhances their ability to understand the parametric techniques that we cover in class, such as confidence intervals and hypothesis testing.
By combining our complimentary fields and courses in the Nichols College Polling Project, we are creating innovative connections that cross disciplinary boundaries, where students can utilize skills from multiple perspectives to solve complex problems. The students are able to apply analytical frameworks or methods of analysis from multi-disciplines to the study of questions and controversies relevant to their campus, their community, and their individual interests.
Because the project is focused on a general presidential election, subsequent public policy, and civic engagement, it forces students to evaluate issues relevant to contemporary global society, including cultural awareness, social responsibility, and diversity. Thus, our work is supporting the College mission to prepare students to “articulate an understanding and appreciation of cultural and human differences … one’s social and civic responsibility to the community, the nation and the world.”
For us, the biggest surprise of the project has been the level of engagement by students and faculty not directly related to the course. Within the first 48 hours of launching, our survey received nearly 250 responses – that’s overwhelming on a campus that has roughly 1200 students. We are delighted to see how these types of projects can actually engage the whole campus, let alone students in our two courses.
Nick and I will continue to reflect on the student learning experience in our PSCI and MATH courses, as well as the process of designing this type of a course-based, linked project. The greatest challenge might be discovering what will we do for our next endeavor; how can we craft a similarly engaging project outside of an election year? How do we “top” this?
As champion for the new Interdisciplinary Studies program, I hope to encourage collaboration, coursework, and unique study opportunities that promote student awareness and abilities relevant to the global economy, including cultural awareness, social responsibility, and diversity. As an institution of higher learning, we want to continue promoting pedagogies that are relevant, experiential, and supportive of student outcomes. The Nichols College Polling Project provides just one example of how these types of endeavors can inspire and engage faculty and students, fostering greater integration and collaboration across the curriculum in the context of two seemingly-unrelated courses.
 Lydia Saad, “Conservatives hang On to Ideology by a Thread.” GALLUP. 11 January 2016. http://www.gallup.com/poll/188129/conservatives-hang-ideology-lead-thread.aspx Results are based on aggregated telephone interviews from 15 separate Gallup polls conducted in 2015, with a random sample of 12,137 adults, aged 18 and older, living in all 50 U.S. states and the District of Columbia. For results based on the total sample of national adults, the margin of sampling error is ±1 percentage point at the 95% confidence level.
 John Sides and Lynn Vavreck, The Gamble: Choice and Chance in the 2012 Presidential Election. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2013.
 Abby Kiesa et. al, “Millennials Talk Politics: A Study of College Student Political Engagement.” The Center for Information and Research on Civic Engagement. 2006. http://files.eric.ed.gov/fulltext/ED498899.pdf
 “Right Direction or Wrong Track.” Rasmussen Reports. 31 October 2016. http://www.rasmussenreports.com/public_content/politics/mood_of_america/right_direction_wrong_track_oct31 The national telephone survey of 2,500 Likely Voters was conducted by Rasmussen Reports from October 23-27, 2016. The margin of sampling error for the survey is +/- 2 percentage points with a 95% level of confidence.