Annenberg tracks the elusive voter

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 November 9, 2000