Several political scientists in the School of the American and Global Studies are capturing the pulse of the South Dakota electorate through The South Dakota Polling Project. The public opinion polls not only provide valuable information for the public and policymakers, but also yield high-quality scholarly work.
“What spurred our interest in starting a research group were new priorities within the college and the creation of the School of American and Global Studies, in particular,” said associate professor David Wiltse, who directs The South Dakota Polling Project. “What we discovered is there wasn’t a polling group permanently rooted in South Dakota consistently taking the pulse of the South Dakota electorate. Our idea is to do two to three polls per year, particularly in election years, that serve both academic interests and public service interest.”
The inaugural poll in November 2020, which was supported by department funding, examined attitudes about COVID-19 and policies related to the pandemic. The second poll in April asked how COVID-19 has affected South Dakotans’ daily lives and examined which messenger is most effective at increasing vaccination rates. That poll was supported by the School of American and Global Studies, the College of Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences and the College of Pharmacy and Allied Health Professions.
The results of these two polls and a follow-up survey on older workers in May are available in short articles on The South Dakota Polling Project research group’s webpages.
In summer 2020, Wiltse and assistant professor Filip Viskupic, who share the day-to-day The South Dakota Polling Project workload, received a one-year, $15,000 grant through the SDSU Research, Scholarship and Creative Activity Challenge Fund. Through the RSCA funding, the researchers are conducting three polls—the first in August 2020, the second in the fall and the third in spring 2022.
Daniel Scholl, vice president for research and economic development, said, “This is an excellent example of SDSU researchers fulfilling the university’s land-grant mission, using their skills to serve the public interest while generating new knowledge.”
“The research question comes first and then we figure out how best to go about answering that question,” Wiltse said. “We carefully construct the survey to answer as many outstanding research questions as we can.”
To do the polls, the researchers purchased a data file with the addresses of every registered voter in South Dakota from the Secretary of State. They randomly choose from that list and send letters inviting voters to go to the Question Pro website and enter the identification number listed in the letter to take the survey online.
“We are the only poll (in the state) that uses this particular method,” said Wiltse, pointing out most polls are telephone surveys. “This method is less expensive and gives us better response rates. More importantly, it allows us to get longer format and deeper surveys and to do more sophisticated experiments by randomizing questions within the poll.”
Wiltse continued, “We are using the same principle as in a laboratory experiment, manipulating a single variable to see what effect it has on the subject and then comparing the responses. People answer similar questions changed ever so slightly to test how a particular variable affects their responses.”
For instance, in the April poll, the same statement was attributed to a politician, a religious leader and a scientist or health care practitioner to see if the messenger made a difference—and it did. “What surprised us was how politicized the medical messenger was,” Wiltse said. The poll showed that religious leaders were the most effective at encouraging South Dakotans to get their COVID-19 vaccinations.
Though Wiltse said doing the first poll was exciting, he sees the second poll, which gathered responses from 3,057 registered South Dakota voters, as their best work. “We got really good data that can help shape the public discussion,” Wiltse said.
“What we are doing with The South Dakota Polling Project is truly interdisciplinary,” said Viskupic, who became a faculty member in 2019 after earning his Ph.D. at the University of Georgia. He specializes in political psychology and has a background in statistical analyses. “The COVID-19 pandemic cuts across social, behavioral and medical sciences. You can have the best vaccine in the world, but if people are not willing to take it, it is not very useful. That is where our research comes in.”
To prepare the polls, Wiltse and Viskupic have partnered with assistant professor Brittney Meyer of pharmacy practice, assistant professor of industrial/organizational psychology Alper Kayaalp and associate professor of sociology Abdallah Badahdah.
The South Dakota Polling Project team has submitted manuscripts to political science, public health, pharmacy science and general social science journals. “In June and July, we submitted four manuscripts to journals and a fifth was completed by the end of August,” Wiltse said.
Their work has generated interested from state and even international media. A reporter from Denmark’s leading newspaper did a feature on The South Dakota Polling Project and the researchers have discussed their results multiple times on South Dakota Public Broadcasting’s In the Moment.
“We can tell people are looking at our website,” Viskupic said, citing more than 1,000 hits. However, Wiltse admits some people question whether the researchers have their own political agenda. “We get hate mail—and I answer all of them,” he said pointing out, “political science is the systematic study of people in political environments. Once I write back saying ‘here’s what we are doing,’ people understand.”
The data these polls generate can provide insight to help solve difficult problems, Viskupic said. “Our work is making an impact.”
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