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Dan Carter, 657-2269

November 3, 2008

MSU Billings students' classwork on front edge of presidential, state politics

MSU BILLINGS NEWS SERVICES — Sometime between lunch and sundown on Oct. 23, the work that Justin Mohr and his classmates had completed had gone from a Microsoft Word document to an MSNBC political talking point.

Not your typical day in the life of a college student.

But the last month has been far from typical for Mohr and his political science classmates at Montana State University Billings. As part of their Public Opinion and Polling class, the students worked with political scientist Dr. Craig Wilson and sociologist Dr. Dan Lennon on developing, administering and analyzing a statewide poll.

The objective poll was likely the only one in the state produced by Montanans, not by a political party or a political action group, Wilson said. And the work has gained a lot of attention. As the results were being released on Oct. 23, Wilson was fielding calls from CBS radio, television stations in the region and political reporters from around the state. Results of the poll were picked up for use on cable political talk shows and on internet sites dedicated to latest office pastime of poll-watching.

For the students, it was the first time in the spotlight.

“It was a great experience,” said Mohr, a junior from Park City. “Most of the people were willing to talk with me. It did help being a student.”

Charting opinions in the midst of a heated and historic presidential race as well as a strong gubernatorial campaign has been informative and exciting, students said.

“It was interesting to keep track of what people thought in different parts of the state,” said Jose Araya, a political science major from Costa Rica.

And even when the calls caught people eating dinner or doing other chores, they would sometimes request that the students call them back, said Jonna Jones, a senior from Fort Peck.

“I thought that was pretty cool,” Jones said.

The 13 students who took part in the poll not only worked to develop the questions, but worked at least three sessions on the phones. On average, they worked between 12 and 15 hours in the MSU Billings Computer Assisted Telephone Interviewing (CATI) lab. They completed 403 interviews for the survey, talking with people from Libby to Scobey and anywhere between the ages of 22 and 93.

The students gain much from this experience, Wilson said, not because their work becomes news and coffee break discussion, but because they are actually doing the science. They even use the raw output data for research papers.  

“This is the only political science program in the university system where students actually get to do political science,” he emphasized.

Justin MohrThe MSU Billings poll was started in 1989, and this year marks the 23rd survey of voter preferences and opinions. The phone survey was completed over the course of five nights between Oct. 16-20 and used a computer program that dials random phone numbers across the state. The methodology selects both the phone numbers and the members of a household to interview.

Dr. Scott Rickard, director of the MSU Billings Center for Applied Economic Research who also directs the CATI lab, said the students followed the same professional protocol and techniques used in other poll work.  The only difference between their work and the work done by a professional organization is that the students were earning academic credit, not a paycheck.

“I was watching the students perform and they did a very adequate job,” Rickard said. “I think they made the process as unbiased as they could.”

Wilson said the poll serves to bring some heightened awareness to MSU Billings. He did more than 35 interviews with media outlets in October and will spend election night offering expert insights on a Billings television station.

“Because of this poll, there is a lot of interest in the program,” he said.

The students who took part in the MSU Billings poll this year were:

  • Jose Araya Vega
  • Justin Mohr
  • Jillian Barber
  • Nathan Morgan
  • Amanda Hudson
  • James Reed
  • Jonna Jones
  • Jacob Rhoades
  • Travis Light
  • Gregory Ryan
  • Glynn Maddox
  • David Thatcher
  • Rachael Williams

PHOTO ABOVE: Montana State University Billings political science student Justin Mohr, from Park City, prepares to do some calling at the university’s Computer Assisted Telephone Interview lab for the most recent MSU Billings poll. The university’s political science and sociology departments have been doing the polls since 1989.

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