Purdue undergraduates to present results of national polling at National Archives

May 11, 2015  

WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. — Half of Americans do not have faith in the government to protect them from natural or manmade catastrophe, and two-thirds of Americans think that the government cares most about protecting big businesses, according to national polls measuring citizens' civic competence.

The polls were led by undergraduate students with the Purdue Institute for Civic Communication and the results will be presented in Washington, D.C., on Wednesday (May 13).

The nine students in the PICC Polling Unit will present their findings at 6 p.m. in the William G. McGowan Theater in the National Archives. The event is free and open to the public with RSVP to picc@purdue.edu. A reception in the Archives Rotunda will follow the event.

Paula Dwyer, editor at Bloomberg View, will moderate, and the forum will be livestreamed from the National Archives YouTube channel. The Purdue students, who represent the colleges of Liberal Arts and Engineering, will present the findings of four polls measuring the civic competence of American adults. The surveys were conducted in partnership with the polling firm Penn Schoen Berland of Washington, D.C. The students will participate in an on-stage discussion, answering questions from Dwyer, the audience, and a live Twitter feed.

"The goal of our polling project, which will continue with new students next year, is to merge applied learning with solid research and analysis, allowing our students to take a scientific measure of the state of our civic society – what Americans know, contribute and appreciate or fear about that society," said Ambassador Carolyn Curiel, a clinical professor in the Brian Lamb School of Communication. Curiel, a former White House senior speechwriter and diplomat, has worked with the nonprofit cable network C-SPAN and its founder, Purdue alumnus Brian Lamb, to create classes, forums and other programs for undergraduate students.

The poll is an applied learning project of PICC, a university-wide, nonpartisan initiative made possible by the Daniels Fund of Denver. Students designed the poll under the direction of Curiel. Glenn Sparks, a professor in the Lamb School, also collaborated on the project. PICC is a part of the Brian Lamb School of Communication, which is housed in the College of Liberal Arts.

Analysis was conducted with assistance from the Purdue University Office of Institutional Assessment.

The students selected more than 75 questions to be included in a series of four polls during the 2014-15 academic year. Penn Schoen Berland conducted the online interviews of more than 4,500 Americans. Penn Schoen Berland weighted these responses based on Census Bureau American Community Survey estimates of demographic variables in order to generate results that are representative of the American population. The margin of error for each poll was slightly less than 3 percent.

"Each member of the polling unit looked at the data through a unique lens to find the most significant results," said Haley Sands, a senior studying political science. "For example, from the knowledge poll, we found that the average American just barely passes the U.S. naturalization test. From the participation poll, we discovered that Americans ages 18-34, believe their vote does not make a difference, but four out of five Americans think the number of people who show up to polls is too low. Third, in our confidence poll, we found that while a majority Americans think higher education is necessary, one third of Americans believe it is not attainable. We hope the data we analyzed will have innumerable applications to future students and to the citizens of America."

Among key findings:

* Sixty-eight percent of people in the Midwest reported that they volunteered every month.

* More than half of Americans, 59 percent, think wealth or race most divides the nation. The same proportion of Americans think the nation is most united by freedom and patriotism.

* Democrats were twice as likely as Republicans to say that wealth divides Americans the most, while Republicans were more than twice as likely as Democrats to say that political ideology divides Americans the most.

* Only 46 percent of Americans could correctly identify the function of the judicial branch.

* Eighty-three percent of Americans do not consider a candidate's gender when voting, but black Americans preferred a female candidate twice as often as they preferred a male candidate.

* Thirty-three percent of Americans rarely interact with their community.

* Forty-five percent of Americans rarely or never participate in local programs or initiatives.

* Fifty-one percent of Americans believe that voting is the best way to effect change, but black and Hispanic Americans were significantly more likely to believe that participating in a social movement or protest is the best way to effect change.

* Seventy0-five percent of Americans seek new information on current events once a day or more.

* Sixty-four percent of Americans do not share their views on civic matters or only share their views in private.

* Forty-four percent of Americans do not openly demonstrate support for political candidates or parties.

* Hispanic Americans were more likely than other Americans to believe that the American system allows them the opportunity to be successful.

"Working on the polling unit has been a fantastic experience," said Mason Arnoldy, a student studying engineering. "As an engineer, the opportunity to work with and learn from this team of excellent communicators from variety of different majors has helped me grow personally and professionally. The process of creating this poll has been a learning experience for all of us. There were some challenges along the way, but it was always fun and some of the results are really interesting. One thing that stood out to me in the poll was that most people know the very basics, but struggled with more specific questions. Over 8 out of 10 Americans know the three branches of government, but less than half know what the judicial branch does." 

Writer: Amy Patterson Neubert, 765-494-9723, apatterson@purdue.edu

Sources: Carolyn Curiel, curiel@purdue.edu

Kara McIver, member of the PICC Polling Unit, kara.mciver@gmail.com 

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