Newswise — ITHACA, N.Y. – Days before the Nov. 3 presidential election, a majority of Americans – and two-thirds of younger adults – are worried about the nation’s future, according to a national poll designed by Cornell University undergraduates.

Surveying a nationally representative sample of more than 1,100 adults, students in the class “Taking America’s Pulse” found that former vice president Joe Biden held a strong national-level lead among likely voters over President Donald Trump, consistent with other widely reported polls.

But a question written by Sabrina Martin of Palo Alto, California tapped into underlying anxiety among likely voters, said Peter Enns, associate professor of government, and Jonathon Schuldt, associate professor of communication, who co-teach the class. 

Asked if they felt hopeful or fearful about America’s future, 53.5% of survey respondents said they felt fearful, compared to 46.5% who were hopeful. Concern was highest – 67% – among those aged 18-24.

“We thought it was stunning that, as the election approaches, more than half of respondents indicated they were fearful for America’s future,” Enns and Schuldt said. “We also noticed a striking pattern by age, with younger respondents appearing more fearful.” 

Each of the roughly 50 students in “Taking America’s Pulse” was responsible for writing a survey question based on their research interests. Their topics were wide-ranging, from the election to self-driving cars to expected cause of death.

The class may be the only one of its kind to put undergraduates in charge of a national-level, probability-based public opinion survey, which can be expensive to conduct, costing as much as $1,000 per question. NORC at the University of Chicago, a leading survey research firm, conducted the poll for the class over two weeks in October, using its AmeriSpeak Panel.

The students said most people don’t appreciate how much work goes into phrasing a seemingly simple survey question to make it clear and unbiased. Hannah Urken, a communication major from Westchester, New York, estimated she revised her question 15 times, including replacing references to “prisoners” or “inmates” – which might conjure negative stereotypes – with “incarcerated individuals.”

Her findings also were unexpected: About 70% of respondents said incarcerated individuals should get the same medical care for COVID-19 at local hospitals, if needed, as the general public.

Alana Coleman, a communication major from Brooklyn, New York, explored an often-taboo topic. She asked if people thought their cause of death would be sudden accident or injury (5%); a health issue or illness (38%); natural causes or old age (54%); or suicide (1%).

“There’s a lot of skepticism towards polls,” Coleman said, “but after working on one, I see the validity in them.”

Students’ outside-the-box questions can lead to insights professional pollsters might miss, Enns and Schuldt said. In the class’s 2016 poll, a question about who voters considered more truthful, Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump, revealed “hidden” Trump supporters who hadn’t declared their preference, and was highly predictive of the election.

“We’ve changed how we write survey questions because of this class, because we’ve seen the insights that emerge from asking atypical questions,” said Enns, who’s also director of Cornell’s Roper Center for Public Opinion Research, where the students’ survey data has been archived.

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