By Chris Jenkins, Associate Director of University Communication, Marquette University
Several colleges and universities around the country have recognized the value of conducting public opinion polls. The collective effort of these institutions helps advance our knowledge of how voters feel about the candidates and issues that dominate our headlines, newscasts and social media feeds.
Not every university poll, however, has asked voters to give an approval rating for the Pope.
In August 2015, the Marquette Law School Poll asked Wisconsin voters to give their opinion of Pope Francis. Among Catholic voters in Wisconsin, 70 percent had a favorable opinion while only 6 percent had an unfavorable opinion.
“Any secular leader would be delighted to do that well,” says Charles Franklin, director of the Marquette Law School Poll and a professor of law and public policy at Marquette University.
Like other institutions of higher education that conduct polling, Marquette saw an opportunity to serve the public by providing an accurate snapshot of voters’ opinions on any number of issues – and, in the process, bring positive attention to their respective universities by capturing a sliver of the bright spotlight that constantly shines on our political process.
As part of its mission, Marquette University Law School seeks to serve as a modern-day public square, a place where important issues can be debated seriously and with civility. Marquette’s broader mission as a Catholic and Jesuit university compels the Marquette Law School Poll and Franklin to go beyond questions of which candidate is ahead and why.
“When we look at proposals that come up in society about how to address poverty, or access to education, or access to health care, all of those things fit well with the Jesuit value of caring for others,” says Franklin. “And in that, I think we are providing, in a very small but not quite trivial way, greater understanding of how to translate public attitudes toward those issues into potential policies.”
Through the poll, Franklin has examined public attitudes on social issues including economic inequality, education, water quality, immigration, policing, incarceration, employment and the economy. (All results are available at law.marquette.edu/poll.)
Exploring such issue-related questions was a central part of the initial planning process for the poll, which began in 2012 when Franklin, then a professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, agreed to serve as a visiting professor at Marquette and oversee the new polling project.
“In 2012, our original thought was that we would spend the spring and summer looking at a variety of social circumstances in the state – What is life like in different parts of the state? What are the concerns? A wide range of subjects,” says Franklin.
Then came controversy surrounding Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, which ultimately led to an effort to recall him.
According to Franklin, “We were quickly hurled into political polling right from the get-go.”
The poll correctly predicted that Walker would survive the recall attempt, the first steps toward building a reputation as the “gold standard” in Wisconsin polling. Since 2012, it has accurately predicted the outcome of how Wisconsin would vote in every major national and statewide political race, from the high-profile gubernatorial recall in 2012 to presidential primaries in 2016.
Franklin, who joined the Marquette faculty full-time in 2013, isn’t one to brag. But he does point to the accuracy of the Marquette Law School Poll and others around the country as evidence that, as he wrote in a Washington Post op-ed in June 2016, “The polls are not broken. Say it again: The polls are not broken.”
“I do think there’s a certain value in recognizing that polls are not broken,” says Franklin. “In 2012 in particular, we heard a lot of doubt cast on whether the polling was accurate. But at the end of that year, it proved that they were very accurate. Polls alone would have gotten 49 out of the 50 states, missing only Florida by a tenth of a percentage point. So that was a pretty good track record in 2012. In our data, but also [for] all pollsters, we collect our data and sample in ways that are well established by statistical theory, by actual theorems that explain why they should work. But [what’s] good in theory is not necessarily good in practice. Political polling is one of the few areas where you get an objective measure of ‘were we right or not?’ By Wednesday morning of most election years, you know who the winner was.”
Franklin’s journey to becoming a pollster began in the 10th grade, when he was charged with doing a science project in school and decided that he didn’t want to make a volcano with baking soda. Instead, he designed a survey, measuring the attitudes of grade-school students on their favorite Saturday morning cartoon shows. The questions may be more significant today, but the enthusiasm remains.
“I’m an old-fashioned pollster in the sense that I still believe that giving voice to the public at large is an important ‘small-d’ democratic value,” says Franklin. “Allowing only elites, self-interested parties and interest groups to have access to the information about what the public is thinking about things is bad for the broader public understanding. For all of the imperfections of polling in general, I think we’re much better with it than without it, and in the changing media environment, it’s a function that universities and especially private universities, are especially well-suited to do as part of our broader mission to serve the public.”