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Promoting Civic Engagement Through Public Policy Polling

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Brittany Keegan
October 30, 2023

Earlier this month, the 2023 NASPAA Annual Conference brought together policymakers, practitioners and academics from across the United States and beyond. Participants explored the value of public service education, and considered ways in which schools of public service can impact, grow and provide value to their communities.

As part of the “Delivering the Value to the Public through Polling, Training and Leadership Programs” conference panel, our team shared information about the Wilder School Commonwealth Poll, and how we help to promote civic engagement in the commonwealth of Virginia and beyond through our polling efforts. Below we share highlights of this presentation; these highlights not only provide information about our own poll, but can also offer tips and ideas to others seeking to begin or enhance their own polling efforts.

About the Wilder School Commonwealth Poll

Multiple times a year, our statewide Wilder School Commonwealth Poll provides policymakers with an up-to-date snapshot of public opinion on current policy issues in Virginia. The poll obtains landline and mobile phone interviews with participants over a two-week period, and typically has a sample size in the 810–850 range. In 2020, the poll was selected as a “2020 America’s Choice” poll by CNN during the presidential election.

Developing Questions

The Commonwealth Poll covers a variety of topics, including voting intentions, health policy, public safety, education policy, energy policy, affordable housing, social equity and more. While not every poll can address all of these topics, we seek input from a wide variety of stakeholders, including past and current elected officials, practitioners working in the field, academics from across the university and members of the public who have shared their thoughts and interests. We then narrow down suggestions based on current events such as upcoming elections and current legislation being debated by the General Assembly By seeking a wide variety of perspectives, and by relating these perspectives to current events, we aim for our findings to be relevant to and reflective of our community.

Ensuring Representation in the Polling Process

Participating in the polling process gives people the chance to express their opinions and to make their voice heard. In public policy polling, findings can influence how key issues are discussed in the media, viewed by the public and voted on by policymakers. Thus, a representative sample is key in being able to provide an accurate view of public opinion, and we always ensure that we have a representative sample of adults in Virginia.

Once data is collected, we weight the statistical results to correct known demographic discrepancies. All of our polls use a two-stage weighting procedure to weight the dual-frame sample by the demographic characteristics of gender, age, education, race, ethnicity, Hispanic origin, region of residence and personal phone use. Again, our goal is to ensure that people of all identities are represented in our findings and in our dissemination efforts.

Sharing Our Findings

Once the data has been collected and analyzed, we share them in a variety of ways to ensure that they’re as accessible to the public as possible. Avenues for dissemination include press releases to the media, policy briefs and formal presentations to policymakers and practitioners, publication on our website, news articles written and distributed by our university and infographics for use on social media. Our findings have also been shared through academic publications by our colleagues across the university.

We also use the previously mentioned demographic data when sharing our findings. While we always present high-level findings that show overall public opinion, we also include demographic breakdowns. For example, we highlight how people of difference races/ethnicities, different levels of education, different income levels, different political views and more feel about key issues. This allows readers to better understand any demographic-based disparities that may exist, and provides insight into equity issues that may need to be resolved.

Highlights of Our Work

Some specific examples of ways in which we have shared our poll findings include:

  • Seeking public opinion on willingness to get vaccinated, ability to access vaccination sites and willingness to vaccinate children during the height of the pandemic; these questions were asked in collaboration with the Virginia Department of Health and the Virginia Department of Emergency Management as part of a larger project to promote the equitable distribution of the COVID-19 vaccine.
  • Widely sharing findings related to voting intentions in upcoming election, which have been featured in local, state-wide and nation-wide newspapers.
  • Sharing findings related to higher education (e.g. the extent to which Virginians value higher education) at statewide meetings of college presidents.

Looking Ahead to Future Polls

In all of our polling efforts, we aim to encourage members of our community to reflect on issues, make their voices heard and take action. As we look ahead to the 2023 statewide elections in Virginia, and to the 2024 presidential election, being able to show how the public feels about issues and candidates will allow the Wilder School Commonwealth Poll—along with the polling efforts of other universities—to play a key role in promoting civic engagement and uplifting voices in our community.

Author: Brittany Keegan is the Director of Research Promotion and Engagement at VCU’s Wilder School. Her work includes public policy polling, conducting qualitative research and data analysis for a variety of state and local government agencies, and teaching in the MPA and Nonprofit Management Programs.

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