The MTSU Poll provides a semiannual glimpse into who we are
By Suma Clark
Ken Blake, Director of the Twice-Yearly MTSU Poll, remembers an interesting call from the BBC in Great Britain, prompted by the dead-heat Senate race between Bob Corker and Harold Ford Jr. in 2006. “The whole world covered that race,” recalls Blake, who describes the independent, nonpartisan telephone poll conducted by MTSU College of Mass Communication students as “a mirror we hold up to the population—our goal is to make sure the mirror is accurate.”
Not every state is fortunate enough to have such a “mirror,” especially on a regular basis. Starting in fall 1998, the University’s Survey Group has collected public opinion data every spring and fall on major social, political, and ethical issues affecting Tennessee. Jason Reineke, associate director, whose decision to join the MTSU faculty was swayed by the opportunity to be involved in the poll, says, “I really believe that, after educating residents of Tennessee, the poll is one of the most important services that Middle Tennessee State University provides to the state.”
Issues such as teacher tenure, illegal immigration, Muslims’ religious rights, and closing the budget gap were part of the spring 2011 poll. Results (available for view at www.mtsusurveygroup.org) based on calls made between February 14 and 26 to 589 adults chosen at random made headlines across the state. Blake and Reineke send out a press release after each poll, but the website also has the questions, responses, analyses, and raw data.
“We are very transparent and go for full disclosure. We consider that the data we collect is owned by the public,” Blake explains. Media across the state eagerly report on the findings, often doing follow-up stories as issues move into the forefront.
The availability of data over more than a decade fosters considerable research among faculty and graduate students. Two recent projects illustrate the depth of information. Heather Duggin reported her work in her thesis last year: “Birthers and Belief Gaps: Ideology’s Influence on Knowledge of Barack Obama.” During Scholars Week 2011, Misa Culley presented initial findings about political affiliation and opinions on the economy in “Polarized Lenses: Party Identification and Ratings of the National Economy, 2001–2011” and took first place among Mass Communication graduate students. (She plans to complete her thesis in fall 2011.)
Planning and executing the polls is a year-round process that Blake and Reineke fit in around classes and research. “Things really get going at the first of each semester. We visit classes [such as Journalism 1020, American Media and Social Institutions] and explain to students what they will be doing. There is online registration for them to sign up for specific times to call,” says Blake, adding that close to 1,500 students participate each year. Callers—26 at a time—converge on a room in the Business and Aerospace Building shared with Management and Marketing. The computer gives them a number to call, and they follow a script that adapts to responses through the code Blake writes. He hopes the students “come away with the sense that they did something important.”
After the data is collected, Blake and Reineke analyze it and prepare a release. Blake, who started the poll with Bob Wyatt, says with a smile, “There’s a 12–24 hour period when we know things no one else in Tennessee knows.”
Just as the queen in Snow White was not happy with the truth-telling “mirror on the wall,” not everyone is happy with the poll mirror. “Sometimes it’s pleasing; sometimes it’s not,” Blake says. But that doesn’t decrease the value of the reflection provided by the MTSU Poll to the citizens of Tennessee.