Class influences statewide survey questions

Elected officials and business innovators are always curious about what the public is thinking, and some USF students got a chance Wednesday to determine what questions those leaders should be asking.

In collaboration with Nielsen Holdings, a global marketing intelligence company based in Oldsmar, political science professor and political analyst Susan MacManus’ students in her Media and Politics class helped develop a survey to gauge Florida citizen’s most pressing concerns.

The Sunshine State Survey is conducted annually by Nielsen and gathers economic, social and political public opinion. 

MacManus helped create it in 2006.

“This is a very special and lucky class,” she said. “To have the caliber of professionals here listening is a chance even some graduate students don’t get.”

The survey is an instrument of political analysis to predict the voting patterns of Floridians in upcoming elections. It is also utilized by the private sector to measure consumer trends.

The students drafted survey questions beforehand to present to the three invited Nielsen representatives.

“Of course you would expect younger issues like medical marijuana and gay rights, but I’ve overheard flood insurance, affordable health care, poor roads and transportation” MacManus said. “It’s really not just the stereotypical youth issues.”

Proposed survey questions also involved teacher tenure, gambling and gun regulation.

Though Nielsen benefitted from gathering data, MacManus said the students learned about the utility of statistics and the virtue of “rigorous” scientific

Her class is composed of roughly half political science and half mass communications majors, she said.

“The media uses polls all the time, but they don’t always know what questions to ask or what to do with the answers,” she said. “From the political science perspective, during campaigns you need to know the issues on people’s minds and what government can be doing in response.”

Steve Houghston, workforce management and optimization leader for Nielsen, said he hoped the experience would fascinate future employees.

“Every time you watch TV or go to the store, there is data – every action is data,” he said. “There will always be a tremendous amount of data points around you.”

Nielsen collects and condenses raw data into information that clients can use to empirically understand what consumers want. 

Houghston said the survey will identify potential untapped demographics for businesses, and inform advertising, budget allocation and product development.

Kim Hawkins, methodology leader for Nielsen, said surveys are necessary to identify changing patterns in the collection of specific information regarding behaviors, beliefs, perceptions and interests.

“We can see how answers to the same questions have changed across the years,” she said. “Florida is always changing.”

MacManus said young people, such as the students in her class, have a valuable viewpoint on what will be important to Floridians in the future.

“We were interested in bringing in the opinions of the younger generations, who will be the future leaders of our state,” she said. “There’s an old stereotype about Florida – people outside of our state believe everyone here is a senior citizen.”

However, there is a growing portion of younger people in Florida – almost half of registered voters are now under the age of 50, she said.

Bernard Lewis, a senior majoring in political science, said he tried to frame his questions with consideration for different political ideologies.

He was careful to word his question without any hint of a bias, he said. Only impartial questions will paint the accurate picture of public consensus. 

“I’m continuing to see the importance of statistics,” he said. “It’s not just this dry thing political science majors have to take, there’s actually meaning behind the numbers.”

Lewis said splitting into groups gave him insight into other people’s viewpoints. 

“It was a lot of listening to the different perspectives,” he said. “Four minds are better than one when determining what is important to a broad variety of voters.”

Five selected questions from the class will be included in the 25-minute survey, which will be conducted via phone this summer, MacManus said. A handful of students will be asked help analyze the results, which will be available by fall. 

“Rare is it you have a chance to get students involved in a very important study with statewide attention,” she said. “It is a great opportunity to develop questions that deserve answers.”