Survey Says...

Undergraduates look under the hood of democracy in the new Penn Program for Opinion Research and Election Studies.
July 1, 2014

From opinions of the Hobby Lobby decision to top contenders in the 2016 presidential race, we’re peppered daily by poll results, many produced by biased sources. Citizens may be jaded, confused, or just exhausted by all the information, but Associate Professor of Political Science John Lapinski argues that polling plays a vital role in democracy. 

“Polls are the best way to answer the question, ‘Does the government do what the public wants?’ he says. “It’s a way of figuring out priorities, what we care most about.” For example, regarding the Hobby Lobby case, good polling will help determine not just what people think of the verdict, but how much they really understand its implications. “We’re using polling data to figure out how citizens fit into the political process.” 

As elections unit director at NBC, Lapinski keeps up on polls to help him make calls on election nights. Now, thanks to the new Penn Program for Opinion Research and Election Studies (PORES), he’ll be using research done by Penn undergraduates—and plans to have some students right there with him in 30 Rock this November 4.  

A recent gift from Robert A. Fox, C'52, and Penny Grossman Fox, ED'53, to the Fox Leadership Program has created 10 fully-funded undergraduate fellowships for PORES. The fellows will work on developing research that is not only academically important but matters to the public. “This program is different than any other in the country because of the connection to NBC, which gives it relevancy beyond esoteric academic studies,” says Lapinski. 

PORES already has a half-dozen students working on projects this summer, including a study by Zac Endter, C’16, of how voting rules have changed across time, to see how rule or requirement changes impact voter participation. Will Marble, C’15, is analyzing exit poll results, which Lapinski points out are the only polls done of actual voters, as opposed to likely or registered voters: “We don’t ask who they voted for but why they made the choice. It’s a rich data source.”

Their research not only will immerse the students in the underpinnings of our democracy, but give them tools they’ll be able to use whatever their career. “Many undergraduates want to do real research, but sometimes they lack the tools,” says Lapinski. PORES fellows will learn to use different statistics packages and quantitatively analyze data, knowledge that will look good on their resumes wherever they go next. 

They’re also going to search for new and innovative ways to do public opinion research, like using social media. And they won’t just focus on the “horse race,” says Lapinski, but will study policy positions and how people perceive whether government is working. He is already collaborating with the Annenberg School of Communication and eventually other schools including Engineering and Wharton. 

“PORES will put Penn into the national conversation in a significant way,” Lapinski says. “We’ll be cited for our research, disseminating it for the larger public debate. It’s a way to influence things, and no other university has this opportunity.”