Annenberg tracks the elusive voter

Text by SANDY SMITH


Armies of pollsters dip fingers in the onrushing stream of public opinion
every four years to see what the country thinks about the candidates running
for president — or at least what those who say they’ll vote
think.

This year, a team of researchers at the Annenberg Public Policy Center
(APPC) has joined the multitudes on the stream’s bank. But instead
of dipping a finger in, they’re using a bucket to collect information
not only on what people think about the candidates, but how they form
their opinions and how those opinions change over time.

The researchers, under the direction of Annenberg School Dean Kathleen
Hall Jamieson, are engaged in a project called the Annenberg 2000 Survey.
Billed as “the largest survey of the American electorate ever conducted,”
the 14-month-long survey tracks people’s perceptions of the candidates
and how people use various forms of media to get campaign information
and reach conclusions about the candidates.

The survey is at heart an extended tracking poll, a common tool used
to monitor shifts in public opinion over time.

Since last November, the Annenberg 2000 Survey has conducted daily polls
of a changing representative sample of the American public, interviewing
up to 300 people each day. When panel interviews and re-interviews are
taken into account, the survey team will have spoken to roughly 75,000
Americans about the 2000 presidential campaign. APPC Senior Researcher
Michael Hagen said, “we will have conducted 100,000 interviews by
year’s end.”

While the traditional tracking polls do not necessarily survey every
respondent they choose for the sample, the Annenberg 2000 survey tries.
“We’re a lot more careful than the traditional tracking poll
is about keeping after people and making sure we interview everyone we
can,” Hagen said. And the interviews go deeper than those in the
typical tracking poll. “The survey is a half-hour long. We ask people
about their attitudes towards the candidates and their positions on issues,
and we ask about their attitudes toward the campaign, so this survey is
a lot more detailed than the typical tracking poll.”

Like the other tracking polls, this survey has shown an electorate that
vacillates between the two main candidates, Texas Gov. George W. Bush
and Vice President Al Gore. “Everyone is surprised by the volatility
of the electorate this year,” Hagen said.

But the survey has also unearthed valuable information about how Americans
become informed about the candidates. For instance, Hagen said, “We
did find that debates do promote knowledge of the candidates’ issues
on positions, although there are sizable holes in that knowledge.”
In addition the debates also focused the attention of those not much interested
in politics on the election, the survey team found.

Does this filling-in of the knowledge gap make voters out of non-voters?
Right now that’s a question the team cannot answer. “We do track
[the likelihood of people voting],” Hagen said, but so far the team
has not analyzed the data. Similarly, there’s not much information
yet about the ways new media like the Internet are rounding out the information
diet.

But that should change as the team starts analyzing the data in earnest.
Work on that is already under way, and should intensify once the elections
are over. Surveys will continue through the inauguration Jan. 20, 2001,
and the team plans to publish a book detailing its findings by the end
of next summer.

 





Originally published on .