Academics and Research

New Korbel center dedicated to public opinion research

For diplomats seeking to make sense of events in their host country, for public officials attempting to make policy and for anyone needing data to inform business decisions, understanding the public’s mindset is essential.

That’s the thinking behind the Crossley Center for Public Opinion Research, a new institute at the University of Denver’s Josef Korbel School of International Studies. Established in fall 2014 after a $1 million gift from alumna Helen Crossley (MS ’48) — daughter of polling pioneer Archibald Crossley — the center trains a select number of graduate students in the art and science of public opinion research and how to glean valuable data from poll results.

“It challenges them to think about these countries they might go to and be assigned to in a much more politically sophisticated way,” says Floyd Ciruli, a longtime Denver pollster and political analyst who runs the center and teaches its courses. “For the past 15 years, organizations like Gallup and Pew and others came to the conclusion that if there was to be peace in the world, it would be greatly enhanced if we knew a lot more about the world — and if the world knew a lot more about each other.”

Last fall, students in the program studied polling results — and made their own successful predictions — around the November midterm elections in the U.S., as well as the presidential election in Brazil and the Scottish vote for independence. Program participants Aaron Schonhoff and Kevin Stay also conducted research into changing attitudes around medical marijuana and marijuana legalization in Colorado between 2006 and 2012; they presented their findings in December at the Pacific Chapter of American Association of Public Research conference in San Francisco.

“I thought the [Crossley] center was right up my alley, based on my interest in democracy promotion abroad, and also I have some background in public opinion,” Schonhoff says. “I wrote my senior thesis for my history degree on public opinion in the decade leading up to World War II to show that the United States was not as isolationist as previously thought. There were pockets of isolationism, but there were definitely more people who were a bit gung-ho to get into the fight and make sure that world order was not too disturbed.”

As part of this thesis work, Schonhoff looked at Pew and Gallup polls, as well as letters to the editor in the New York Times and other newspapers. He’s now seeing firsthand how such research can be useful in gauging public opinion to more recent events, and using that information to create strategies.

“I want to work on democracy promotion and election-observation missions, so being able to look at the return results you get in exit polls and comparing that to official numbers that the government might put out — you can see if the government is maybe cooking the books a little bit,” he says. “And with democracy-promotion NGOs that are attempting to establish viable opposition parties in areas where there aren’t any, you have to know what kind of messaging would be effective. You can find these things out by polling people and seeing what gets responses from the public.”

Ciruli says one of the center’s future goals is to work with DU’s political science department to create a nationally recognized University of Denver poll, but for now the program is focused on teaching students how to use public opinion research to enhance the other skills they are learning at the Korbel School.

“It’s related to peace, it’s related to stability, and it helps drive economic development,” Ciruli says of polling and its results. “You will find that a huge number of these international organizations — and many of our students will work for them — want public opinion of the countries they’re going to because it helps them predict what will and won’t work. It’s a growing field.”


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