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Friday, Apr 18, 2014
Education

USF students take on prestigious poll

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TAMPA — If the phone rings this summer and you’re asked to participate in the annual Sunshine State Survey, rest assured the questions didn’t come from some slick professional pollster or partisan spinmeister.

The University of South Florida’s School of Public Affairs is taking over formulation of the prestigious poll. Influential Floridians from Gov. Rick Scott to local newspaper editorial boards often turn to the survey as a measure of the public pulse.

“This is a great opportunity for students who are interested in politics and media to really see from the ground up how polling and surveying goes, right to the end product, and how it is used politically and misused politically,” said Susan MacManus, a USF political science professor.

The survey was launched in 2006 by the Tallahassee-based business-government partnership Leadership Florida, prodded by MacManus.

“I talked to them about the absence of a real issue survey in Florida,” said MacManus, a go-to analyst of local, state and national politics. “We have a lot of horse-race polls.”

When USF launched the School of Public Affairs last year, Leadership Florida approached about handing off the project.

The survey provides a look at what state residents think on a wide range of economic, social and political issues. Students in MacManus’ Media and Politics class have already begun crafting this summer’s poll, with the intention of adding five new questions to the boilerplates on family finances, performance of government and the state of our schools.

At a recent class session, representatives of Nielsen Co. gave students a presentation on how the global behavior researcher conducts its phone operations. Through a connection with Leadership Florida, Nielsen has been handling the nuts-and-bolts telephone work behind the Sunshine State Survey.

Steve Houghton, a workforce manager for Nielsen, said his company will offer input and make sure the students’ work is up to snuff.

Compiling a poll can be daunting. The 2012 Sunshine State Survey telephone script ran 33 pages. And experts can train for years to create reliable, valid and unbiased surveys.

But Houghton expressed faith in MacManus and her charges.

“For the most part, it’s going to come from this class,” he said. “That’s what they’re getting trained in, and that’s what they’re learning. It’s exciting.”

Jonathan Bolz, a sophomore political science major, said he would pitch questions on the Affordable Care Act, immigration reform and teacher tenure.

“It’s really interesting,” Bolz said. “I’m really enjoying learning about how polling is done, really enjoying writing the questions.”

Masiel Pelegrino, a junior in political science, said she expected a little bit of competition among the class members to have their material used.

“But at the end of the day, we’ll come up with the best possible questions to be included in the survey,” she said. “It’s just a real pleasure to be able to take part in something as big as this for the state of Florida.”

In addition to shaping the questions, the students will tour Nielsen’s Oldsmar center, and many will be called back after the class ends to work on an analysis of the responses and such details as graphics for public presentations. The results are provided to lawmakers, community groups, editorial boards, even moderators of high-profile candidate debates.

“Having real-world experience is rewarding to me,” said Bana Abraha, a USF senior in government and international affairs. “Whenever you read textbooks, whatever you learn is just for the moment. When we do this, it’s a lifetime experience.”

jstockfisch@tampatrib.com

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