Students learn the art of survey-taking in Hawkeye Poll class
Tuesday, November 12, 2019

Not often do college students get the chance to make headlines with a class assignment, but that’s what happens in the Hawkeye Poll class offered by the University of Iowa Department of Political Science.

The class is an introduction to the mechanics of creating a public opinion poll—including survey design, sampling, and question wording—and provides students with a critical understanding of how polls work. It’s also a hands-on learning experience: Students design and execute the Hawkeye Poll itself, writing the questions and helping call the more than 13,000 registered Iowa voters in the sample through the university’s Iowa Social Science Research Center.

“By exposing students to the inner workings of the survey process, we’re able to communicate the important message that polling is not so complicated, and we can do it ourselves if we follow the right processes,” says Fred Boehmke, UI political science professor and faculty adviser for the Hawkeye Poll.

The Hawkeye Poll itself—which has existed in various forms since 2007—was created as a vehicle for students to get hands-on research experience for individual honors projects and graduate dissertations, as well as faculty research. It still serves that purpose today, contributing to the research of more than two dozen graduate students.

Instructor and doctoral candidate Jielu Yao talks with students about different types of polls and how to determine whether the results are reliable, different types of surveys, and how to design more accurate polls. Then, students brainstorm a list of issues they’re interested in asking Iowans about. After narrowing the list, the students word the questions in a way that avoids leading the respondent to a particular answer.

Topics covered in this year’s poll are the Electoral College, reproductive policy, criminal justice, and a universal basic income. Pollsters also asked Democrats which candidate they were most likely to caucus for if the caucuses were held that day.  

The Hawkeye Poll has gained credibility by highlighting Iowa political trends before many other polls, and its results are awaited by parties, campaigns, and the media. In 2007, it was the first poll to see Barack Obama gaining on Hillary Clinton among Democratic caucus-goers, and Mike Huckabee pulling away from Mitt Romney among Republicans. In 2011, it was the first to see an increased number of Iowa Republicans thinking about Newt Gingrich. Other polls would soon see a similar trend, until Gingrich began to fade a few weeks later. The 2018 poll about the Iowa governor’s race also netted statewide news coverage.

Students in the class think the poll’s accuracy comes from the fact that it’s a University of Iowa initiative—since the Iowans they call have a well of goodwill for students at the university, they’re more willing to talk.

“They don’t see it as coming from a campaign or a national poll; they see it as university students doing research, so they feel good about that,” says Harry Whittenburg-Nelsen, a junior ethics and public policy major from Spencer, Iowa.

One aspect of polling that surprised the students was the amount of time spent on wording the questions so they don’t lead the respondent to an answer. Even if a question seems to be written well on paper, reading it out loud can create subtle changes in meaning that can influence the poll’s outcome.

“It’s a lot more work than I thought,” says Whittenburg-Nelsen.

Most of the students in the class are political science majors, so they look at polls as a way of reading public opinion on policy and politics. But Emma Bohn, a sophomore from Des Moines, is also a mathematics major, so she sees polling a little differently. She has an eye for how the numbers work together, as well as what the relationships between them mean.

Students also gain the ability to critically consume polls reported in the media, a functional knowledge of the survey process, and valuable research experience that translates well into just about any job. Alexia Sanchez, a senior political science major from Des Moines, is learning one skill in particular she knows will help regardless of her future career path.

“Coding,” she says. “I’m struggling with it and sometimes I want to run away, but I’m determined to improve because it’s important to learn.”

The students are also aware that they’re following in the footsteps of Iowa grad George Gallup (BA ’23, MA ’25, PhD ’28), the first to develop a scientific polling method using sampling and statistical evaluation that revolutionized the profession and later founded the polling company that bears his name.

“It’s important to be able to understand the power of polling, and how the data we gather has so much impact,” says Sanchez.