Talking Politics

Saturday, September 27, 2008

Luke Hofstad and Renee Helm working on the SCSU Survey

SCSU Survey student directors manage all aspects of the survey research arm of the Political Science Department. Pictured are Luke Hofstad, a senior from Andover; and Renee Helm, a senior from St. Joseph

Eight student directors are selected annually for the SCSU Survey, a respected and increasingly sophisticated statewide arm of the St. Cloud State Department of Political Science. They help develop the questions and lead polling and analysis for about six surveys a year. Taking part in the fall omnibus political survey – especially in a presidential election year – is prime time for these involved students.

“I have to admit I’m a tad jealous,” said former Survey director Jamie Kirsch ’07, who was deployed to Iraq just two months after graduating with a degree in political science. “How exciting to be part of the survey at such an intense time in U.S. history!”

The SCSU Survey usually generates considerable public attention with its fall statewide survey – most famously in 1998. Survey leaders circulated a news release three days before that election heralding the trend toward a Jesse Ventura win in the Minnesota governor’s race. Two of those leaders, political science professors Steve Frank and Steven Wagner, followed that coup with a book about the Ventura phenomenon, “We Shocked the World: A Case Study of Jesse Ventura’s Election as Governor of Minnesota.”

Frank, who started the SCSU Survey 28 years ago, has an infectious passion for all things political. “I’m intensely interested in politics – following it, teaching it, measuring it,” he said. “I think elections matter. Just when you think you’ve got everything figured out, something new comes up. Wow!”

This year is especially a “wow” time in national politics. “I think Americans realize this is a critical election,” he said. “If people can’t see the difference between Barack Obama and John McCain, then there’s no hope.”

Part of the Survey’s success is the integrity of the Survey team. Clean methodology is crucial to Frank and his colleagues.

The clients who come back to the SCSU Survey – only government or non-profit organizations are accepted – count on the team to poll a representative sampling with good questions to gather the information they need. Don Feeney, research and planning director for the Minnesota Lottery, calls the annual survey the St. Cloud State group has done for the Lottery for 14 years the “gold standard” of gambling surveys.

But while the SCSU Survey’s bread-and-butter clients help pay the bills, the omnibus fall political survey will be the main course this fall for Helm and her fellow student directors and pollsters. And one of the most interesting aspects will be the “feeling thermometer,” Frank’s invention that measures whether people know a candidate well enough to rate him or her and how they feel about the candidate on a scale from 1-100.

How warmly a voter feels about a candidate’s personality and likeability is a big deal, according to Frank. It’s what wins or loses elections. “One of the reasons George Bush won was that he was a better candidate than John Kerry, who came across as aloof and not somebody you could have a beer with over the fence.”

Helm and her colleagues are looking forward to finding out how much that “feeling thing,” as well as the issues Americans are grappling with, will affect this fall’s election. “We’ve been guessing about the outcome of the presidential election since last year,” she said of prognostications based on survey results and historical campaign analysis. “We’re just so excited to see if we’re right.”

Helm, a public administration major from St. Joseph who’s been a student director since spring 2006, appreciates the opportunity her position offers to delve into political hot-button issues and hobnob with faculty Survey leaders. “I just think it’s an awesome experience.”

SCSU Survey student directors

SCSU Survey student directors, from left, Luke Hofstad, a senior from Andover; Trevor Lynch, a junior from Maplewood; Mike Loehlein ’08, St. Joseph, and Renee Helm, a senior from St. Joseph, discuss strategy for upcoming surveys. Helm is lead student director for this fall’s omnibus political survey.

“Many say the survey was the kind of experience that helped them get into grad school or get jobs or the kind of experience they normally wouldn’t have gotten,” said Frank.

Student directors have gone on to significant positions in government, education, law – even the business of polling. Chas Anderson ’96, who majored in government relations and is currently deputy commissioner for the Minnesota Department of Education, is typical of the bright, motivated students who pass through the SCSU Survey. She was hired right out of college as an aide to then Gov. Arne Carlson. “Chas has a passion for public policy, but she’s also politically astute, which goes back to her work on the SCSU survey,” said Bernie Omann ’90, Sartell, director of Community Relations for St. Cloud State and former legislator. He was chief of staff for Gov. Arne Carlson when Anderson joined the Carlson team.

Other notable student director graduates include Justin Wedeking ’00, now a political science faculty member at the University of Kentucky, Lexington; Dave Kleis ’89, a former legislator and now mayor of St. Cloud; John Baker ’99, who recently opened what’s believed to be the only U.S. law firm dedicated to veterans’ needs in the Twin Cities; Aaron Amic ’99 ’02, an executive with Ipsos Public Affairs; and Laurie Hokkanen ’02, assistant city manager for Chanhassen.

The SCSU Survey was born out of Frank’s desire to develop a hands-on teaching tool to help his students understand more about public opinion. He spent two summers at the University of Michigan’s survey research center as a visiting faculty scholar before launching the SCSU Survey in 1980.

In the Survey’s humble beginnings, said first student director Jeff Wood ’81 ’87 ’95, Web content director for St. Cloud State, “I sat at the political science department secretary’s desk in Brown Hall to make survey calls on her phone. We looked at questions on a paper list and wrote the answers down,” he said. “Back then it took two to three weeks to get results.”

Wood recalls Frank taking him to a downtown marketing call center run by SCSU alumni Larry Meyer ’71 and Peg Ford Meyer ’70 to view the sea of desks, telephones and interviewers taking the pulse of Americans on politics and products. “There I got a glimpse of the future,” he said.

In the mid ’90s, as student director Anderson helped oversee the Survey’s transition from a “paper/pencil” to computerized operation. “You can’t get that kind of experience out of a classroom,” she said.

Last year the SCSU Survey moved into a new and expanded space in Stewart Hall with 19 calling stations. Each has a computer fitted with computer-assisted telephone interviewing software. The system offers instant results. The Survey is one of the University’s centers that generates revenue for its operating costs – $80,000 to $100,000 a year for computers, phones, servers, printers and technical support services.

“The hands-on experience I was afforded through the Survey is invaluable,” said Army Staff Sgt. Kirsch, who plans to pursue a master’s degree in conflict resolution and peace studies when she returns from Iraq. Part of a St. Paul-based Minnesota National Guard unit, she is a battalion nuclear, biological and chemical non-commissioned officer in charge, tracking helicopters throughout the theater of Iraq. She has received an Army Commendation Medal and Meritorious Service Medal for her service and leadership.

Kirsch said working with the Survey during fall 2006 gave her insight into a process few take the time to understand or appreciate. “We all come to rely upon the statistics that are fed to us as we prepare for elections or determine what products are preferred. Because of my experience with the Survey, I understand and appreciate the purpose behind the polls and surveys that are used in practically everything we do.”

- Marsha Shoemaker

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