By EMILY HOLLINGSWORTH
A survey sponsored by the University of Mary Washington and conducted by the Center for Leadership and Media Studies detailing Virginia residents’ views on state and nationwide issues has made headlines in both local and national media publications.
The survey’s results, which were conducted from Oct. 1 through Oct. 6 and questioned 1,000 Virginia residents by phone, were discussed in The Washington Post and on the front page of The Free Lance-Star.
The Center for Leadership and Media Studies’ surveys are unique in that they highlight issues that affect the Commonwealth of Virginia alongside national issues.
There are few surveys that record Virginia residents’ opinions on issues affecting their own state, according to Stephen Farnsworth, professor of political science and the director of the Center for Leadership and Media Studies.
“There are an awful lot of surveys about national politics, but not a lot about state politics,” Farnsworth said.
Two questions asked that related to Virginia politics included residents’ thoughts on Gov. Bob McDonnell, who was recently convicted of 11 counts of corruption after a long and dramatic trial, and the 2014 U.S. Senate race in Virginia, which includes democratic incumbent Senator Mark Warner, Republican Ed Gillespie and Libertarian candidate Robert Sarvis contending for election.
According to survey responders, 60 percent believed that McDonnell should face jail time for his charges, while 28 percent believed he should not be jailed.
Evan Dean, a senior political science major, agreed that McDonnell should face jail time and said that his sentence would send a message to future governors.
“Any amount of prison time is going to set an example,” Dean said.
However, freshman Courtney Hardy offered an opposing opinion, suggesting that there could be an alternative to McDonnell facing time in prison.
“I’m sure that something else can be done about it,” Hardy said.
According to survey results concerning the 2014 Senate race, 47 percent support Warner, while 37 support Gillespie, giving Warner a double-digit lead over his challenger. Six percent of responders support Sarvis.
Freshman Hallie Heinzen, said she wants to be better informed of the policies of both candidates, but said that on major issues she supports Gillespie.
Stephen Nickens, a senior theater major, cited Sen. Warner’s focus on banning workplace discrimination and being a proponent for legalizing same-sex marriage as reasons why he supports Warner. Nickens also said he and his family are more familiar with Warner’s policies.
National issues discussed in the survey included the Ebola virus’ recent entrance into the United States following the hospitalization of Thomas Eric Duncan, who carried the virus from Liberia and had developed symptoms when he entered the United States. Duncan has since passed away from the disease, and two nurses who had treated Duncan in the hospital in Dallas, Texas have tested positive for the virus.
30 percent of those surveyed believe that the U.S. government is very unprepared to handle an Ebola breakout, while 13 percent believe that the U.S. government is very prepared to handle an outbreak.
Freshman Emily Little said that the enormous media attention the U.S. has given Ebola has made people aware of the virus, but she is unsure if the U.S. could handle a widespread outbreak.
“If it reached us more, I’m not sure if we would be prepared for it,” Little said.
Senior international affairs major Callie Dolloff believes the U.S. will successfully contain the virus if they take all necessary precautions.
“If hospitals don’t cut corners, then treatment will be effective,” Dolloff said.
This is the third survey that UMW’s Center for Leadership and Media Studies has sponsored. The first survey took place in March of 2013 and the second in September of 2013.
The surveys were conducted by Princeton Survey Research Associates International (PSRAI) over a five day period. 1,000 Virginia residents were contacted by phone, with 500 using landline and 500 using cell phones.
According to Farnsworth, the survey was a representative sample that reached residents of different races, genders, ethnicities and residents who lived in different parts of the state.
“We try to develop as much of a picture of Virginia as possible,” Farnsworth said.
Once the surveys were completed, they were immediately sent to the Office of Media and Public Relations at UMW, where they were released to 80 media sources, including the Associated Press, according to Marty Morrison, director of University Media and Public Relations.
This system of sharing surveys is beneficial for both parties. The media sources receive surveys that offer a wide range of the viewpoints of Virginia residents and, in turn, the university receives publicity when published in various media outlets.
The surveys, according to Farnsworth, “bring a lot of statewide and national attention to the university…and helps put UMW more firmly on the map.”
The surveys can also act as research aids for UMW students, who could use conclusions from the surveys in academic papers, according to Farnsworth.
Farnsworth has also used the surveys as teaching tools in his class.
Students in some of his classes were able to view the questions in advance, discuss them and offer possible revisions and evaluate the surveys’ results.
Ellen O’Brien, a junior political science major, was one of the students who was able to see the development of the survey first-hand in Farnsworth’s Research and Writing in Political Science course.
O’Brien spoke about the difference between reviewing surveys that have already been completed compared to watching a new survey develop.
“It’s easy to analyze the results and not realize the process it goes through beforehand,” O’Brien said.
O’Brien also said having this experience in her class has benefited her and other students.
“[This class] is one of many that teach skills that could potentially lead to an internship. Learning how to write survey questions could be put on a resume,” O’Brien said.
In addition to helping UMW students and media outlets, the surveys also display state patterns of the Virginia.
“Survey results in Virginia are always very interesting,” O’Brien said. “Virginia is like the United States on a smaller scale. There are a lot of metropolitan and rural areas, and they have a wide range of opinions and ideological views.”
O’Brien also mentioned that Virginia is a swing state. For that reason, she believes that politicians probably study the surveys to track Virginia and its ever-changing trends of thoughts, trends that have surprised Farnsworth himself.
In the year 2006, 57 percent of Virginia residents supported an amendment in the Virginia Constitution banning same-sex marriage, compared to 43 percent who opposed it. In this recent survey, 50 percent of Virginia residents supported the legalization of gay marriage while 42 percent opposed.
The rapid reversal of opinion in Virginia on this topic is “really unusual in state politics,” according to Farnsworth.
Getting a snapshot of Virginia’s changing views is critical to Farnsworth, as well as the recipients of the survey.
“It’s important to know how Virginians are thinking. The only way to know is if we just ask them. And that’s what we do,” Farnsworth said.
The next survey is set to be conducted in 2015.