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Minnesota State University, Mankato
Minnesota State University, Mankato


Page address: Syllabi/PS471SYL.html

Political Science 471/571
Public Opinion and Polling Methods
Fall 2005
MWF 9:00-9:50
MH 101

Instructor: Dr. Fred Slocum
Office: 204A Morris Hall
Phone: 389-6935
Web site:
Office Hours: M, W, F 1:00-3:00; T, Th 9:30-11:30; or by appointment


This course examines public opinion in American politics and how to measure it.  Topics include what public opinion is, Americans' knowledge about politics, political socialization, group differences in public opinion, the content of public opinion on certain issues (environmental protection, selected social and racial issues, and presidential approval), and public opinion polling methods.  In the first half of the term, we will consider issues of sampling, question wording, how survey information is collected, how to be an effective poll taker, and how to read and understand survey results.  We also will explore focus groups and several cutting-edge techniques in survey research, such as survey experiments.  There will be several videos during the semester.  Exact arrangements are still in progress, but the class will in all likelihood carry out a real-world survey for an actual client.  This probably will involve some evening hours (6:00 to 9:00 PM) in early and mid November for interviewing.

We will encounter some controversial ideas this semester.  Political scientists, politicians and political observers argue vociferously over these ideas.  I hope you will, too.  I expect and encourage frequent participation from members of the class.  You should come to class every day prepared to offer opinions, observations and questions, and to use recent events to shed light on concepts learned in this class.  I will try to maintain an atmosphere in which students of all political persuasions will feel equally free to express their opinions during class discussions.

Course Objectives:

To the extent they do well in this course, students will gain knowledge and understanding of the following:

  • How public opinion is defined
  • Characteristics of public opinion: direction, intensity, salience and stability
  • How pollsters obtain respondents; strengths and drawbacks of sampling methods; response rate and how to maximize it; nonresponse bias
  • Writing good survey questions; open-ended vs. closed-ended questions; types of closed-ended survey questions; minimizing bias and maximizing clarity in survey questions
  • Focus groups and how they are useful, in business and politics
  • Traditional methods for giving surveys: by mail, by phone, and in person; their strengths and drawbacks
  • Good interviewing practices over the telephone and in person
  • Other biases and pitfalls in polls: social desirability bias, acquiescence bias, interviewer effects and ethical issues
  • New developments in survey research: survey experiments, list experiments and CATI
  • Americans' information levels about politics; is more information better?
  • Political socialization: how we acquire politically related information, attitudes and beliefs
  • Americans' opinions on selected issues: environmental protection, crime and gun control, abortion and other social issues, racial issues; presidential approval; others if time permits
  • Group differences in public opinion (i.e. the gender gap, racial differences, religious differences, etc.) and why they matter

In addition to the probable survey, the course includes some other written activities (some in class), and graduate students must complete an additional paper assignment (see below).

Assignments and Grading:

There will be a midterm exam (Monday, October 17) and a non-cumulative final exam (Thursday, December 15).  Each will consist of essays and identification items.  About a week before each exam, I will pass out a study guide to help you prepare.

Several learning activities are built into the course.  First, there will be some in-class and possibly take-home short (<=2 page) papers.  Students will receive credit toward their participation grade based on the completion and quality of these papers.  Second, students will be asked to find a survey or poll on the Internet and complete a short paper based on it.  Third, students will be asked to write a short paper reflecting on their experience in carrying out survey research (an alternate assignment will be made if the class does not conduct a survey).  Graduate students will, in addition, prepare an annotated bibliography of appropriate scholarly articles in professional journals, totaling 250 pages or more.  The bibliography guidelines will be handed out separately.

We will carry out the survey, using in-person and/or telephone interviewing, over a period of two or three weeks, ending by November 21.  If completed in person, interviewing may take place during some class hours.  Telephone interviewing may require some evenings (Sunday, Tuesday and Thursday), from 6:00 to 9:00 when we have the best chance of reaching people.  Please see me very soon if the telephone survey creates unavoidable scheduling conflicts.  In such cases, an alternate assignment, such as a research paper, may be arranged.

The grading procedure is below.  Note the different weights for graduate versus undergraduate students.

Undergraduate students:

  • First paper (Internet poll): 15%
  • Second paper (on survey, or alternate): 15%
  • Midterm exam: 25%
  • Participation (in class, papers and survey): 20%
  • Final exam: 25%

Graduate students:

  • First paper: 10%
  • Second paper: 10%
  • Midterm exam: 20%
  • Participation: 20%
  • Bibliography: 20%
  • Final exam: 20%

Students whose point totals place them very near (within 0.1 points of) the cut point for the next higher letter grade will be evaluated on an individual basis for promotion to the higher grade.  In this evaluation, I will consider factors such as class participation, attitude and improvement over the term.

Students with Disabilities:

I would like to hear (early in the semester is much preferred) from students with a documented learning or other disability that might require some modification of seating, testing, or other class arrangements.  I will make every effort to accommodate students with these needs.  If you have any questions, please see me or contact Julie Snow in the Disability Services Office (132 Memorial Library, 389-1819).

Policy on Attendance:

I will note attendance frequently if not daily.  All students should plan to attend class regularly and contribute to class discussions.  Students are responsible for obtaining notes for any missed session.  Excused absences may be considered on a case-by-case basis for valid reasons (such as for certain medical reasons), or for significant opportunities, such as attending a professional conference.  Whenever possible, please notify me in advance of an absence, giving a valid reason.

Policy on Late Assignments:

Barring uncontrollable extenuating circumstances (which I must approve before a paper's due date), late assignments will be downgraded one full letter grade (10 percentage points) for each calendar day late (2 letter grades or 20 points for a paper submitted the Monday following a Friday due date).  Computer-related problems (including hard drive or disk crashes) are not an acceptable reason for late papers or extensions.  Don't wait until the last minute to print your papers off!

Policy on Make-Up Examinations and Incomplete Grades:

Examinations cannot be made up unless the student provides acceptable, documented reason for missing the exam.  Makeup exam requests have merit to the extent that (1) the circumstance is unavoidable, (2) the reason for missing the exam can be documented, and (3) the instructor is notified well in advance of the exam.  Makeup exams will not necessarily be identical to, and may be more difficult than, the exam given in class. Early exams will not be given.

The 2004-2005 MSU Undergraduate Bulletin outlines University policy on incomplete grades as follows.  "The grade of 'incomplete' is reserved for special cases and means that, because of extenuating circumstances, the student failed to meet a specific need and an important requirement of the course, but has in other respects done passing work for the semester.  The incomplete must be made up in the next semester in which the student has enrolled, unless other arrangements have been made between the student and instructor who assigned the grade.  If the deficiency is not made up within the specified time, the grade automatically becomes an F or NC" (p. 31).  I will support and enforce this policy fully.

Academic Dishonesty:

A number of activities may be construed as academic dishonesty (cheating).  These include, but are not limited to: deliberately copying material from another source (book, manuscript or another student) without proper acknowledgment, using crib sheets during an exam, talking during an exam, or looking at another student's exam.  Any cheating will result in an automatic F in the course and possible further disciplinary action.  In papers, if you either quote a source or paraphrase (express an idea drawn from another source in your own words), you must acknowledge your use of that source in an approved citation form (i.e. APA, MLA, Chicago citation style).  Come see me if you have any questions.


There are three required texts for this class, all available at the University Bookstore and the Maverick Bookstore.  Although we will not read all of each book, we will read substantial portions of each.

  • Robert Erikson and Kent Tedin, American Public Opinion, 7th edition.  New York: Pearson Longman Publishers, 2005.
  • Herbert Asher, Polling and the Public: What Every Citizen Should Know, 6th edition.  Washington, D.C.: CQ Press, 2004.
  • Barbara Bardes and Robert Oldendick, Public Opinion: Measuring the American Mind, 2nd edition.  Belmont, CA: Thomson/Wadsworth, 2003.

There may be an occasional reading assignment from outside these texts or the reserve materials listed below.  These will be announced and distributed directly in class or placed on reserve in the MSU library.

Course Calendar and Assignments:

I will make reasonable efforts to follow the schedule of topics below.  However, as time and circumstances dictate, the dates may change somewhat.  Thus, the dates given below should be considered approximate.  I will announce any changes in class.  If the survey involves in-person interviewing, we may need to change topics and dates to allow time to carry out the survey during class hours.  Abbreviations used below are: E&T (Erikson and Tedin), A (Asher) and B&O (Bardes and Oldendick).

Part I: The Nature of Public Opinion.

Week 1 - August 29-September 2: Introductions; definition and characteristics of public opinion; uses for opinion polls.  E&T, Ch. 1; B&O, Ch. 3.

(Monday, September 5: Labor Day holiday - NO CLASS)

Part II: Measuring Public Opinion.

Week 2 - September 7-9: Population and sample; nonrandom vs. random sampling.  E&T, 25-35.

Week 3 - September 12-16: Sample size, margin of error and confidence level; random sampling methods.  A, Ch. 4.  (Video: Polling and Statistics)

Week 4 - September 19-23: Question types and wording; fairness and clarity.  E&T, 35-39; A, Ch. 3.

Week 5 - September 26-30: Interviewing techniques; interviewer effects; other pitfalls.  A, Ch. 5.

Week 6 - October 3-7: Survey methods: mail vs. phone vs. in-person interviews; Internet surveys.  Frankfort-Nachmias and Nachmias, Ch. 10 (on reserve).

(Wednesday, October 5: Graduate students - bibliography topics due)

(Friday, October 7: Internet survey paper due)

Week 7 - October 10-14: Focus groups.  Manheim and Rich, Ch. 20 (on reserve).  (Video: Focus group)

(Monday, October 17: Midterm exam)

Part III: The Content of Public Opinion.

Week 8 - October 19: Attitudes vs. nonattitudes.  A, Ch. 2.

(Friday, October 21: Fall break - NO CLASS)

Week 9 - October 24-28: Political knowledge and socialization; public opinion on crime and gun control.  E&T, Ch. 5; B&O, pp. 178-187 and 194-196.

Week 10 - October 31-November 4: Public opinion on social issues and racial issues.  B&O, pp. 187-193 and Ch. 8.

Week 11 - November 7-11: Public opinion on environmental issues.  B&O, pp. 141-145.

Week 12 - November 14-18: Presidential approval and why it matters.  E&T, 108-114.

Part III: Group Differences in Public Opinion.

Week 13 - November 21: Age, religion and socioeconomic status.  E&T, 177-186 and 191-201.

(Wednesday and Friday, November 23 and 25: Holiday - NO CLASS)

Week 14 - November 28-December 2: Gender; race and ethnicity; region.  E&T, 187-191 and 202-211.

(Friday, December 2: Survey evaluation/alternative paper due)

Week 15 - December 5-9: The future of surveys and polls: review.  A, Ch. 9.

(Friday, December 9: Graduate students - annotated bibliography due)

(Thursday, December 15, 8:00 AM: Final exam)