MCAP polls the public on election for first time

At the beginning of the school year, Mercyhurst College opened the Mercyhurst Center for Applied Politics (MCAP), a new center for public opinion research.

Dr. Joseph Morris, the director, and Dr. Rolfe Peterson, the assistant director, each guide the center.

The project’s biggest tool is a state-of-the-art computer-assisted telephone interviewing (CATI) facility , made up of sixteen sound-protected workstations located on the fourth floor of the Hammermill Library.

In September, the MCAP launched its inaugural poll, teaming up with the Erie Times-News.

The poll weighed public opinion among registered voters on the 2010 midterm elections, as well as other issues.

The poll lasted from Sept. 22 to Oct. 5.

The information gathered was then processed using statistical data software. The results are available for viewing on the department’s Web site.

After the successful completion of their first poll, the center already plans to launch more.

“Once we are under way,” Dr. Morris says, “we anticipate conducting a wide range of public opinion polls of interest not only to residents of our region, but to all Pennsylvanians. We’re already discussing plans for a series of statewide polls in advance of the 2012 presidential election.”

Perhaps the most interesting and beneficial part of the MCAP polling process is the high level of student involvement.

Mercyhurst political science majors, trained as research assistants by Dr. Morris and Dr. Peterson, staff the polling project.

Sean Fedorko, a senior political science and philosophy major, served as project manager for the inaugural poll. The position of project manager required particular skills in computer science, which was easy for Fedorko.

He is an experienced employee with the Geek Squad department at Best Buy, where he coordinates most of the in-store repair. He also prepared for the project by interning with the college’s Information Technology department.

As project manager, Fedorko helped install the center’s computer hardware, software, phones and other technology.

As with any project, they did run into some obstacles along the way.

The first system for connecting headsets to the computer terminals didn’t work, and had to be reworked during the summer. The original survey had over 100 questions, but the interview had to be under 12 minutes.

“I’ve adjusted to the sometimes unpleasant realization that weeks or months of work may need to be redone in order to adjust to new goals or circumstances,” says Fedorko.

Fedorko and the others were forced to narrow the scope of the survey to be more precise. They edited the survey to less than 50 questions, but made sure that they were the most important.

The end result was worth it.

“Our experience taught us that MCAP’s best success is the students,” Fedorko said. “They’ve taken hold of an amazing opportunity and are becoming capable research assistants who will develop strong practical skills in social research methods.”