Heading into a hot election, Bucknell research offers insights into Americans’ opinions on some big issues
by Matt Zencey

illustrations by Nancy Harrison


mmigration, escalating international trade disputes, a wave of women candidates energized by the #MeToo movement — these are just a few of the reasons the 2018 mid-term election is attracting unusually intense attention.

What do Americans think about some of these controversies? Have attitudes toward immigrants improved or gotten worse since Donald Trump was elected president? Does where people live make a difference in how they feel about protectionism vs. free trade? Do Americans feel that the #MeToo movement has gone too far, causing unanticipated problems in the workplace?

Bucknell’s Survey Research Laboratory has answers to those questions — and more. The lab, led by Professor Chris Ellis ’00, political science, is part of the Bucknell Institute for Public Policy (BIPP). Several times a year, the lab enables Bucknell researchers — faculty and, sometimes, students — to pose questions in a national opinion survey. The results include demographic data that help produce insights into how Americans’ views vary by political party, age, economic status and other factors.

“We want to get away from ‘Who are you voting for?’ polls and delve into more substantive stuff,” Ellis says. “We’re not after snap opinions.”

Illustration of students on campus by Nancy Harrison
Surprises on trade, immigration
Earlier this year, the United States started imposing tariffs to protect domestic industries from foreign imports. Other countries responded in kind, slapping tariffs on some key U.S. exports. The lab’s surveys have found that the protectionist impulse at work here is not popular with Americans.

“Most people see trade as a benefit to the economy and to the prices people pay,” Ellis says. But he notes that there’s an important geographic difference: Playing up protectionism “really is working in states that Trump relied on to win the Electoral College.”

Immigration is another area where the lab’s surveys have found notable results. Despite President Trump’s harsh rhetoric, “Since the [2016] election, Americans are just generally feeling more positive about immigrants,” Ellis said when interviewed in May about that survey by Newsweek magazine. Stereotypes of immigrants as takers and being lazy, he told the magazine, “are opinions shared by very, very few Americans, no matter what the political affiliation is.”

Contributing to the national conversation
The lab launched its first survey in summer 2016. “We wanted to increase the opportunities faculty and students have in doing social-science research,” says Amy Wolaver, professor of economics and director of BIPP. Another key goal, she says, is to “provide context for what’s in the news and contribute to the national conversation about important issues.” Future surveys will continue to track how opinions may change over time on several issues, including public perceptions of higher education, economic inequality and immigration.

Survey findings can be useful in the classroom as well. In a class on issues in higher education, Ellis covered the controversies surrounding free speech versus safe spaces. He mentioned that 65 percent of Americans agree that college students are too easily offended these days. Among his students, 90 percent agreed. “They blame the other 10 percent,” he says with a chuckle.

Political science major Nikki Marrone ’20 has used her lab internship to explore what factors Americans think are important in trade agreements. One surprising result: More than 80 percent of respondents are concerned with the wages that are paid to workers in other countries. This fall, she hopes to learn more about how attitudes on trade vary when considering factors such as gender, socioeconomic status and education level.

Marrone didn’t know about the lab until she attended a Parents Weekend presentation by professors Ellis and Wolaver. “I’d never realized that, as an undergraduate, you could do that sort of research,” she says.

Her fellow intern, Brayden Zimmerman ’20, landed at the Survey Lab at the start of his first year. A double major in math and political science, he says doing this kind of survey research is a perfect way for him to combine his interests.

He’s especially excited that “We students can do research on questions we are able to ask. I don’t think there are many programs that would allow undergraduates to draft their own questions for national surveys.”

The Survey Lab is not a fancy, high-budget operation. While getting answers to poll questions isn’t cheap, it doesn’t require its own building or expensive facilities. No endowment or benefactor currently funds the lab’s work. “We get a lot of bang for relatively few bucks,” says Ellis.

Getting the word out
When the lab surveyed attitudes about the #MeToo movement, which has focused attention on sexual harassment and assault, big partisan differences emerged. “Democrats, regardless of gender, perceive #MeToo favorably and think that it will effect positive change with few negative implications,” Ellis noted in a summary of the findings. “Republicans, regardless of gender, are likely to think that the movement has gone too far and that one of its main consequences will be to unfairly punish men.”

Other results from Bucknell’s #MeToo survey were cited in stories that appeared in the Chicago Tribune, Kansas City Star, Sacramento Bee and Charlotte Observer. A USA Today story cited the lab’s research into the criteria Americans use to judge trade deals. Ellis wrote an op-ed for The Washington Post based on the lab’s surveys, which reveal that Americans hold sometimes-contradictory attitudes about free speech on campus.

“The lab is helping get Bucknell’s name out there,” Ellis says. “There’s a branding value to the work.”

Seeking more voices
Nobody answers the phone anymore, so how do pollsters get reliable survey results?

The lab uses a contractor, YouGov, that does surveys by recruiting people to participate online. YouGov gathers a larger sample of responses than a normal survey requires. By comparing the demographics of those who respond online to what Census data shows about the population as a whole, the results are adjusted back to show what a representative sample thinks on the questions.

“Up to five years ago this methodology was a ‘no-no’ in survey research,” Ellis says. “But properly analyzed, this method is at least as accurate as calling people at random.” And on politically sensitive topics, where people might hesitate to speak truthfully to another person, “The anonymity of the internet is actually helpful to the survey process,” he says.

The biggest surprise so far in her research work, intern Marrone says with a laugh, is “how many people are willing to take the time to actually do the survey.”

Ellis hopes the lab’s work will help promote more meaningful public debate. He’s dismayed at what he calls “The scream-at-each-other” approach that dominates today’s discourse and wants to nudge people in a better direction.

“The loudest voices are not the most representative,” he says. “There is an understanding that we can do better than this. Those are the voices we need to hear more from.”