University Relations and Communications

Science with a political twist

November 1, 2011



Dr. Scott Rickard, Center for Applied Economic Research, 657-1763
Dan Carter, University Relations, 657-2269


Students get hands-on learning doing annual MSU Billings poll


MSU BILLINGS NEWS SERVICES — Luke Anderson was up to his elbows in science.


Luke AndersonIt wasn’t the petri-dish-loaded-with-mysterious-stuff kind of science that most acquaint with a university undergraduate education. This was political science.


And while the lab setting was absent, the learning front and center.


Anderson and several of his classmates spent a good portion of a week in late October making calls for the annual Montana State University Billings poll. Under the direction of Dr. Craig Wilson, the poll has been a part of the MSU Billings political science program for 23 years. During that time, 26 surveys have been completed and students have been a part of each one.


“We’re the only political science program in the state that has this kind of experiential learning,” Wilson said. “The students learn about polling, they do the questions, they make the calls, they see the output and then they write a paper on it. We’re it when it comes to that kind of experience.”


The annual survey is a measurement of the opinions and attitudes of Montanans on a variety of issues. It gives voters around Montana the opportunity to give their views on the performance of state and national elected officials as well as statewide issues.

The final review of the poll results took place over the weekend and will be presented this week.


For students like Anderson, a 20-year-old senior from Billings, doing the poll is an educational experience that ties sociology and political science theory to reality.


“It’s pretty fun and it’s interesting getting people’s opinions on things,” he said. “You even get people who waiver on both sides of subjects during the course of the survey.”


After doing some classwork research and getting an overview of polling methodology, the students developed their questions and prepared for interviews. The students use 11 phone lines and computers at the Computer Assisted Telephone Interviewing (CATI) Lab affiliated with the Center for Applied Economic Research.


Dr. Scott Rickard, who is the director of the center, also handles the specifics when the polling is done. He and supervisor Jonna Jones (who is an MSU Billings graduate and has been involved with the annual survey for about three years) work with the students to make sure they maintain a professional demeanor and answer logistical questions if they come up.


The CATI lab and students work with a random sample of telephone numbers obtained for the project. The sample has included more cell phones over the years, which helps maintain overall integrity of the survey. Rickard also makes sure the students seek out participants between the ages of 18 and 29. Sometimes that involves asking those answering the call if someone at home is in that age group. Sometimes it means making more calls to get the proper representation of that demographic.


The “young voter” demographic of adults between 18 and 29 make up about 20 percent of the population in Montana, Rickard said. And even though they tend to sit out elections, they have the potential to make a difference.


“They still have opinions and by their numbers they have potential for making a difference in elections,” he said.


During his work on the polling project, Anderson said he found that younger demographic more willing to take part in the poll while baby boomers were sometimes hesitant or skeptical.  Students and organizers of the poll all said respondents tend to be more willing to participate when they understand the project is being done for a class.


“They tend to be nicer when you say you’re calling as a student,” Anderson said with a smile.


For this year’s poll results, go to For more on the political science program at MSU Billings or other academic offerings, call 657-2888.


PHOTO ABOVE: Luke Anderson, a 20-year-old senior in the political science program at MSU Billings, pauses for a break during a polling project at the university in late October. Anderson and his classmates used 11 computers and phone lines to make phone calls and ask questions for the annual MSU Billings poll. Students used the Computer Assisted Telephone Interviewing Lab to glean full responses from at least 400 Montanans for the annual survey of political and policy views. The results of the poll were released this week.