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UML Expands Polling in 2020 with Student Help

Center for Public Opinion Tests COVID-19 Attitudes, Democratic Primary Voters

UML Assoc. Prof. Joshua Dyck looks at a political map of the U.S. Photo by Meghan Moore
Assoc. Prof. Joshua Dyck, director of the Center for Public Opinion, looks at an electoral map of the U.S.

By Katharine Webster

Who’s more popular, Tom Brady or Dunkin’ Donuts?

To find out, the university’s Center for Public Opinion surveyed 1,000 likely Democratic primary voters in Massachusetts in mid-February. The survey also asked about support for the Democratic presidential primary candidates and approval ratings for a range of Massachusetts public figures, groups and institutions.

The answer: Dunkin’ had a higher favorability rating than Brady, even before the quarterback who led the New England Patriots to six Super Bowl victories decided to sign with Tampa Bay.

“That’s such a Massachusetts thing,” says graduating senior Madeline Hertz, who suggested adding the approve/disapprove questions about Brady and Dunkin’.

This year, the Center for Public Opinion greatly expanded its polling, going beyond Massachusetts and New Hampshire presidential primary voters to survey Democratic primary voters in six key early voting states around the country. The center’s faculty also designed a survey to take the temperature of Massachusetts residents after the COVID-19 pandemic led to a statewide shutdown. 

They did it with financial support from the provost and the dean of the College of Fine Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences; a cost-effective partnership with the online polling firm YouGov; and help from dedicated undergraduates, who are integral to the center’s work, says Assoc. Prof. Joshua Dyck, the center’s director. 

Dyck and Asst. Prof. John Cluverius, the associate director, discuss the surveys they’re working on in every class they teach, from Introduction to American Politics to Quantitative Research Methods, so that students understand that research is “a living, breathing thing that we’re doing right now,” Cluverius says.

“That’s extremely engaging for students,” he says. “We have more and more students every year who are interested in polling and in being a part of the work we’re doing. And every time we bring students into the process, we create a better survey.”
UML Asst. Prof. John Cluverius is interviewed by a TV reporter before the 2018 midterm elections Photo by K. Webster
Asst. Prof. John Cluverius does a TV interview in his office before the 2018 midterm elections.

Hertz took Survey Research with Dyck last fall, and when he said that he was looking for student interns, she applied. Her first assignment was to enter data from a survey for her hometown of Andover, Mass., on residents’ satisfaction with town services. But Dyck and Cluverius soon realized that Hertz could do more, and that she excelled at writing questions that were both clear and neutral. 

Hertz says she relished the chance to apply what she had learned about question wording in Dyck’s class. Now, she’s planning to apply to graduate schools to study statistical research methods in the social sciences.

“Working with Josh and John was great. They’re fantastic, enthusiastic professors who were willing to include me in whatever they’re doing. I both realized that I’m really capable and really interested, and that there’s a lot more I can learn,” she says.

Hertz edited many of the questions in the center’s polls of likely Democratic presidential primary voters in South Carolina and five Super Tuesday states during a critical time period: after the first-in-the-nation Iowa caucuses and New Hampshire primary and just before the Nevada caucuses and South Carolina primary. 

UMass Lowell was the only organization to poll nationally that week, and the results got widespread attention from media organizations and the candidates’ campaigns. 

Aside from political polling, the center conducts surveys on a broad range of topics. Some polls aid faculty research, and others include original student research. Last month, for example, the center polled Massachusetts voters on a mix of political issues and concerns about COVID-19, including whether they knew anyone who had died of the disease, whether they had lost their jobs and if they were washing their hands more often. 

One fun finding, a follow-up on the February poll: Former Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski had a higher favorability rating than Brady after both had signed with Tampa Bay.

Lindsey Kilpatrick, a Division I UML field hockey player and Honors College student who is double-majoring in mathematics and political science, signed up to work with Cluverius as an Emerging Scholar this past year, as a sophomore. She chose a project that combined two of her main interests, sports and politics.

Kilpatrick analyzed a subset of data on football, concussions and CTE, a degenerative brain condition caused by repeated head impacts, from a 2017 UML/Washington Post survey about Americans’ attitudes toward sports. She ended by drafting a research paper on the results with Dyck, Cluverius and Prof. Jeffrey Gerson that they are submitting to scholarly journals: “Friday Night Politics: Football Bans and American Polarization.” 

She says the experience helped her to get a paid summer internship with a professional polling firm, The Mellman Group, which does survey research for political candidates and organizations, businesses and nonprofits.

“I liked this project because it started off where I was most comfortable: the data analysis, the math. Then I eased into the writing of a formal research paper,” she says. “Now, I’m at a job and I know what I’m doing.”

Kilpatrick is already starting background research for another survey that will dig into why many Americans believe a woman can’t win the presidency and how that belief affects their voting.

Cluverius says students are endlessly curious about such social questions – and the center is there to help them find the answers.

“Wherever students want to be involved, we want to welcome them and nourish their entrepreneurial spirit,” Cluverius says. “The only limit is the student’s imagination.”