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Who Listens to the People?

The state of democracy and public opinion research were common themes at the 74th Annual AAPOR and 72nd WAPOR Annual Conferences. Arundati Dandapani presents key takeaways from the conferences.

Editor’s Note: While all census efforts are important and generate interest, the upcoming census in the US has stimulated staggering levels of controversy because of the proposed inclusion of a citizenship question. While political feelings run hot, it is encouraging to know that there are professionals working diligently to ensure the highest levels of accuracy. They do not have an easy task, and will no doubt face anger over the results from one side or another. The larger industry needs to do everything it can to support them. In this post, Arundati Dandapani summarizes key papers from the recent AAPOR/WAPOR conference in Toronto concerning the census.

Everything is the same and different

The opening keynote “Conducting a Census in the Digital Age,” highlights how digitization has impacted census response rates with relation to modes, incentives, messaging effectiveness, respondent safety, etc. Internet use in the Canadian census has evolved in the past two decades, said Patrice Mathieu of Statistics Canada. Response rates have increased since using the “wave” methodology by sending out letters, reminders and aligned public messages. Tailored and targeted communications had improved the government’s messaging efficiency. The goal for the 2021 and 2026 Canadian census is to increase research on administrative data use, expand mail-out areas and reduce paper waste.

With the US decennial census, past respondent complaints have included:

  • address problems
  • age/illness/death
  • constitutionality
  • contact procedures
  • the time it takes to complete, etc.

Keynote panelist D. Sunshine Hillygus’ book The Hard Count: The Political and Social Challenges of Census Mobilization offers more insight into how a mobilization campaign can increase voluntary participation in the decennial headcount, and identifies emerging social and political challenges that may threaten future census counts: for example, the inclusion of a citizenship question on the census has a direct impact on participation/response rates owing to the bias, fear and ancillary pressures it creates in respondents. However, as nearly half (8 million) of 19 million Latino immigrants in the US are undocumented, the inclusion of this question has become a politically contentious issue with the Trump administration seeking to reinstate the citizenship question in the long form census. 

Currently, the Census Bureau says that it asks citizenship on its American Community Survey (ACS) and the Current Population Survey. The ACS is a survey conducted nationwide every year among 3.5 million addresses, surveying 2.6% of the US population. The Current Population Survey is a monthly survey that is the primary source of labor force statistics for the population of the United States. However, while it asks about citizenship status, the Census Bureau has never asked about the legal status of respondents.

From 1890-1950 (a time of high US immigration levels) the long form census asked the citizenship status of all sample respondents. The citizenship question was not asked in the 1960 census. Since 1960, the citizenship question has been asked of only a sample of households, either on the census long form or the ACS, which replaced it in 2010. Questions about nativity appeared on the “long form” census sent to 20% of households and only the foreign-born were asked to answer questions about citizenship status and their time period of arrival to the US. Since 1970, the census moved to a mailout self-fill format.

Recently, for the first time since 1950, there was mounting presidential pressure to include the citizenship question in the 2020 decennial census, and although this was overruled by the Supreme Court, a Justice Department recourse quickly followed.  

Identity is Fast and Slow

Over a fifth of Canada’s population (22%) identifies as a visible minority and Toronto alone boasts of over half its population (52%)  being a visible minority. The 2016 US Census reports the US population to be 77% white and 23% non-white. Toronto welcomes over 400,000 newcomers each year, and although problems like income inequality, unaffordable housing, and traffic congestion persist, the city has a relatively low crime rate and over 400 different ethnicities mix peacefully. Challenges facing North American societies include cultural integration, urbanization, declining economic outlook and social capital among new immigrants and millennials, effective polarization,  workplace climate issues, culture wars, and intolerance to out-groups. In such times, benchmarking social capital can go a long way in tracking progress.

Communication Matters

Response rates in the US Census surveys have slowly declined over the past 15 years. The movement from no incentive to some incentive had the most impact on raising response rates. Behavioral insights also harness the power of inducements to attract respondents. But what survey reminders were working and what design elements conveyed a mix of authority, authenticity, and action? Words like “open immediately” and playful props like data-slides improved response rates. Longitudinal data allows researchers to develop a propensity model for incentive allocation. Eye-tracking offers design optimization for better response rates.  Static heat maps and dynamic eye-tracking process readers’ attention spans better. People don’t respond when a survey’s legitimacy is not known or when privacy concerns are not met. Limit the volume of messaging, offer diffused focus, plain language, clear purpose and incentives to participate and reinforce the Census Bureau brand to grow engagement.

Cultural Capital and Leadership

The Environics Institute’s Black Experience in the GTA Research Study showed community research in action. The project was a response to racial bias embedded in the police system in dealing with growing income inequality, the concentration of poverty and increased gun violence. Often data collection methods among ethnic groups and populations ignore challenges being faced by people of different ethnic or religious origins. And, this is why they recruited community members to conduct interviews and research, offering skills training or mentorship where needed. With race-based data, we need comprehensive clarity by disaggregating or breaking down composite data (eg. Black women, Muslim women, Jewish newcomer women, etc.) for trends or patterns, said speaker Akwasi Owusu-Bempah. “Political representatives often disregard anecdote in favor of stats especially in the age of fake and alternative news,” warned co-panelist Joseph Smith. Community outreach director Marva Wisden extolled the socioeconomic power of provinces with multigenerational black communities, upholding Nova Scotia as home to the African Nova Scotian Commission.

The outgoing AAPOR President David Dutwin’s address imparted advice to the industry about incorporating ongoing education, advocacy, and funding to tap into the voice of the people. Dutwin committed to polling education and grants for the media, who he cited are the biggest spokespeople of the association. 

Global LensWAPOR

The WAPOR (The World Association of Public Opinion Research) AAPOR joint panel on “Populism around the world” kicked off with Pippa Norris introducing her book Cultural Backlash and the Rise of Populism: Trump, Brexit, and the Rise of Authoritarianism Populism.  Laura Silver of the Pew Research Centre talked about measuring populism, and Gary Langar presented on democracy in troubled times. Langar highlighted the changing electorate (as imminent as in the next 40 years) with the biggest challenge facing US Republicans being “running out of white voters” heralding a likely left skew (most non-white voters vote for liberal Democrats).  

Norris said that populism is a “facade” if we don’t understand the framework of authoritarian populism. Authoritarian values (fear of out-groups, xenophobia, need for security or tribal protection against risks, conventionalism/solidarity, and loyalty towards one’s tribe) mixed with populist rhetoric had swept up elections worldwide. Income is a useless predictor of voting today. Populism manifests as in-group conformity and out-group rejection. Authoritarian populism is a culture and values shift and is strongly correlated with conservative votes. 

Cultural backlash is a response to the concentration of income in the knowledge economy, disrupting rural and suburban regions that traditionally relied on manufacturing services and blue-collar work. Ronald Inglehart added the knowledge society also created disproportionate wins for those at the top (Jeff Bezos and Mark Zuckerberg). The ratio of earnings for winners to the rest in a “winners take all” knowledge economy used to be 20:1, and now it is 341:1! Norris poked fun at the rise of “crisis literature” born from ungovernability, the decline of social capital, and populism.  Trust is at an all-time low: in neighbors, the media, pollsters, politicians, and brands. Norris said trust results from three perceptions: the agent is competent, altruistic and rational. Norris graphs trust into credulity, skeptical mistrust, skeptical trust, and cynicism.  She cited skeptical trust and skeptical mistrust as healthier than blind mistrust or blind credulity—the real problems—observing that the educated are less trusting

The WAPOR-ESOMAR-CRIC sessions aimed to strengthen ties between polling organizations and news media through partnership, budget, statistical knowledge, transparency, and education. The Poynter Institute offers ongoing training here. AAPOR’s conference next year will be held in Atlanta, Georgia, and WAPOR’s 2020 conference will happen in Malaysia.

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