In an unconventional election season, students working at the Elon Poll gained unique insights into the prevailing mood of voters and the state of civic discourse.
By Owen Covington
The woman who answered her phone that Tuesday night in September was drawn from a pool of 10,000 likely North Carolina voters, and one of the few willing to share her thoughts with a student worker at the Elon University Poll.
She told the student she didn’t agree with HB2, the controversial N.C. law called the “bathroom bill,” and she supported Democrat Hillary Clinton for president, but not just because she’s a woman. And on this night, she had to get something off her chest. “It irritates me to no end,” she told the student, talking about Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump’s decision to not release his income tax returns. “I have to sit here and listen to him talk about Hillary Clinton’s health issues, and he hasn’t released anything. I just had to get that out.”
Hers was one of thousands of opinions shared with Elon students working at the poll this fall, with those preferences and choices distilled down to offer insights into what’s on the minds of North Carolinians. And during this contentious election season, the students gained unique insights into the prevailing mood of voters and the state of civic discourse. Most of the students were absorbing the comments and rationales of voters at a time when they were preparing to vote in their first presidential election. They were exposed to a broad range of North Carolinians from varied backgrounds and those phone calls shaped how they viewed this year’s election, and how they will participate as voters in the future.
“In general, there is lots of frustration,” says, a senior from the Atlanta area who has been working on the poll since her first year at Elon. “Going to work at the poll is interesting because it’s a lot like a psychology study. I think this election especially has played out like a reality show, with everybody wanting to weigh in.”
An eye-opening experience
Since its founding in 2000, the Elon University Poll has fielded surveys in the spring and the fall to tap into the views of North Carolina voters. Fully funded by the university, the poll typically conducts three surveys each semester and relies totally on the Elon student body to dial the thousands of phone numbers required to produce a statistically significant sample of responses. Each poll typically includes at least 650 responses to help ensure accuracy and provide reliable insights. On a typical night, students may have to call 3,400 numbers to get close to 200 completed surveys, with thousands of unanswered calls and hundreds of refusals.
Heading the effort is Jason Husser, an assistant professor of political science who joined the Elon faculty in 2012. Husser first got involved in polling while he was an undergraduate at Southeastern Louisiana State, but says even as a child he was interested in why people think the way they do, and how they formed their decisions. “I remember the experience of talking to people from parts of the state I had not had the opportunity to visit and people I would never encounter in my day-to-day life,” Husser says about those early polling experiences. “I see that reflected in my own students calling and having a 20-minute conversation about politics with someone, someone who they might never in their life have the chance to have a conversation like that with.”
About three-quarters of Elon’s student body comes from outside North Carolina, and even while at Elon, many students have little exposure to what lies beyond the Elon campus. Even North Carolina natives might have only limited knowledge of the Old North State beyond their hometowns. “I would say it’s been extremely eye-opening,” says Matt Balzano, a junior marketing major from Massachusetts who has worked at the poll since he was a first-year student. “By hearing a lot of people answer these questions, you get a sense of what they believe in. It gives me an opportunity to speak to people I definitely would not speak to normally, and it allows me the chance to hear their opinions without me knowing who they are.”
That relative anonymity often frees people to offer opinions they might not publicly share and provides the opportunity to discuss issues they might not feel comfortable discussing with friends and family. In a training session before one night of polling, Kaye Usry, instructor in political science and interim assistant poll director, told students that “no matter who you’re talking to, try to envision a kind, elderly relative. Pretend you’re talking to your grandmother.” That said, those who work the poll will tell you that people are often eager to offer up much more than just a response to the question. Balzano says during an earlier survey, he was on the phone with someone for more than an hour for a survey that should only take 10 to 15 minutes to complete. “It felt like he was using the opportunity to talk to someone and share his life,” Balzano adds. “The poll allowed him a way to share what he wanted to share.”
‘Choosing between two evils’
So what are people saying this election year, given how contentious the presidential election has become and the unprecedented course it has taken? Students who worked on the first Elon University Poll in the fall say voters were feeling disheartened and discontent, not just with the current state of the country, but often with the choices they faced at the ballot box. “I think people are really frustrated with the way politics has headed during the past 10 years,” says Alex Vandermaas-Peeler ’17, who is working this year as a senior polling associate with the poll. “People want things to be different. They want to deviate from the status quo.”
It seems voters have zeroed in on a candidate, and backed that candidate unequivocally, even if they had some misgivings. During the first poll of the fall, one respondent said she planned to vote for Donald Trump, and was then asked which candidate—Trump or Clinton—would be better for a number of societal groups, such as the poor, the middle class, blacks, Hispanics or whites. “You can just put Donald Trump down every time,” the woman told the student. “I’m tired of the politicians. I think some of his rhetoric is worse, but as far as what he wants to do and his ability to do it, I think he’s better. I don’t know how you can get any worse than Hillary Clinton.”
Josh Ferno, a sophomore political science and policy studies major from Mooresville, N.C., says that kind of certainty was something he heard as he made calls for the poll this fall. “One of the big takeaways is you understand how set in their ways so many people you talk to are,” Ferno says. “People are pretty decisive in their answers, which seems to be the story of this race. There doesn’t seem to be a lot of room for ongoing deliberation about which of the two candidates to vote for.” That appears to be reflected in the poll results. Surveys by the Elon University Poll found only a sliver of voters likely to head to the polls were undecided about who they wanted to vote for in the presidential race. Results released Oct. 4 found just a little more than 5 percent of voters were still making up their mind.
Brett Huntley ’17 grew up in Breckenridge, Colo., which she describes as “a pretty liberal place,” and says she knew “absolutely nothing” about North Carolina before coming to Elon for school. After working in the poll this fall, she says that she feels “tensions are pretty high,” with voters saying that they “absolutely despise” the other candidate. “For many, it wasn’t that they were supporting someone because they agreed with their views; it’s that they disagreed with what the other candidate stood for,” she says. “It was pretty much choosing between two evils.”
Beyond political races
The Elon University Poll goes beyond just the typical “who will you vote for” questions. The polls are designed to touch upon issues facing North Carolina, as well as broader opinions about the state of the economy and society today. In the first poll of the fall, voters were asked a question prompted by a slogan of the Donald Trump campaign: “Make America Great Again.” If you had to pick a decade that was better than the one in which we currently live, which one would it be? The 1980s was the most common response, followed by the 1990s. The 1950s were a popular answer for white voters, while no black voters selected that decade. Responses to that question were sometimes hard to hear, Mills says. “A lot of the answers I got were the 1950s or during the Reagan era,” she adds. “As a black female, I thought to myself, ‘No, the 1950s weren’t better.’ People didn’t have rights.”
Students say it can often be difficult to not contest the answers they hear when a person’s response runs against what they believe, or they disagree with the rationale someone offers for their viewpoint. For instance, Mills says one voter said he disapproved of the job President Barack Obama is doing, saying that the president is a Muslim, which is not the case. “I’m not Muslim, but it hurt to hear that because it really seems to reflect how we let fear guide decisions in this country,” she says. “It’s particularly hard this time around because I really want to debate with people.”
Ferno says it can be difficult to have many people refuse to participate in the poll, and he’s encountered plenty who are rude about being contacted, with some cursing him or hanging up on him. Husser has a large supply of “stress balls” to give to students who have had a particularly rough encounter. On the flipside, Ferno adds, those who do want to weigh in and offer their opinions can make the experience worthwhile. “They have a lot of pride in the country, and they have a lot of pride in their ability to vote, and they take advantage of that every chance they get,” he says. “I talked to one man who has voted in every election during the past 70 years. I think that’s pretty cool.”
Many students also say there’s value in being exposed to people from backgrounds different from their own, to ideas or opinions that don’t mirror their own. Some added they had little or no interest in government or the political process before signing up to work, having been drawn more by the appeal of being paid $10 an hour and eating pizza for dinner. But often that first experience of talking to people to see where they stand on issues has left them wondering how they would respond to the same questions they are asking voters, and looking to build better foundations for their own beliefs. “For me, hearing other people’s opinions solidified who I voted for,” Huntley says.
Mills echoed that sentiment. “After the first time I worked at the poll, I came back to my room and did my own research,” she says. “I just felt like a hypocrite asking people things and not knowing. You realize how everyone’s opinion relates and how it’s important to the bigger picture.”
Beyond encouraging students to become more politically aware and more invested in casting a ballot each election, working at the Elon University Poll can also pave the way for a future career. Just ask Matt Albers ’15, now a data services analyst with Data Trust, a Washington, D.C.-based company that collects and processes political data for conservative organizations and candidates. Albers first became involved with the Elon poll through a class with Ken Fernandez, who preceded Husser as the poll’s director. Before that class and working with the poll, Albers had planned to major in sport and event management. “I always had an interest in politics, but never thought I’d be interested in it as a career,” Albers says.
First as a poll worker and then as a senior polling associate, Albers says he became enthralled by the ability to tap into what the public was thinking. While at Elon, he served as an intern with the Republican National Committee in its digital and data division, and earlier this year worked on the campaign of Republican presidential contender Marco Rubio. His role with Data Trust is talking with clients—political organizations and campaigns—to determine what insights they are after, and how to tap into them. During this election, as in others, people use polling operations as a chance to have their say leading up to the election, he says. “People have a lot to say, and they feel if they give their 15 minutes to answer a poll, they feel they can sway things one way or the other,” Albers adds.
Husser agrees that the poll offers “a lens to understand people and society,” but says there’s another role the poll plays in the lives of the students who participate that goes beyond the outcome of any election. The poll serves an educational mission, both to teach students about data collection and analysis along with public opinion, as well as giving them an up-close look at the basis of democracy—how people plan to vote on Election Day and why.
As Mills put it, “It’s not often you can be involved in something that can change you and give you a different perspective, and also get paid and get pizza.”