Back to Top

Static or Changing?


I’m Dan Baum and you’re listening to Redefine U. Join us as we continue to explore what happens when we’re challenged to change our thoughts, beliefs or even who we think we are.

With the election just six days away, it seems like every hour, new poll results are released. During the last presidential election, we saw how polls can sometimes be misleading. What are the challenges with conducting a survey when so many of us are working remotely? What can we learn about our community or even ourselves through the process?

Last month, we recorded a conversation with Dr. Dan Nataf, a professor in AACC’s Department of History, Political Science and Philosophy and director of the Center for the Study of Local Issues. When we talked, Dan was fine-tuning his 50th local survey. Since then, that survey was released. You can find a link to the results on our show page. In this interview, he shared with us his thoughts on the survey process, the election and the opportunity we have to redefine as a community.

Dan Baum:           Today, we're talking with Professor Dan Nataf. Dan, good to speak with you and connect at a distance.

Dan Nataf:            Yeah. It's great to be with you.

Dan Baum:           So, how long have you been at the college, and what do you primarily teach?

Dan Nataf:            I got there in 1995. So, it's 25 years at this point. I am in the department of political science. And so, I teach courses like intro to American government, international relations, state and local government. I've just created a course called introduction to political science. And so the other thing I have done over the years is I've been director of the Center for the Study of Local Issues for many years when I first got here. And I still do the surveys every semester. And so, these are surveys of Anne Arundel County citizens residents, and we get their views on a whole variety of topics on a regular basis.

Dan Baum:           Tell me more about how the center came about and how these surveys came about.

Dan Nataf:            Well, the center was a product of a collaboration within the social science division. That was what it was back then. And people like Steve Steele and Lou Aymard and some others decided that they would start running a survey as their kind of signature product, along with making themselves available as social scientists to usually non-profit and government entities that needed some survey work, focus group, anything as kind of a research project that a social scientist could do. And so, that was around 1980.

                                    And so over the years, the survey, it was probably the most well-known of all the things that the center ever did. And the way that worked was by trying to recruit students from other faculty to give those students a kind of an applied learning exposure, an experiential learning moment where they would be trained to go on the phone and call residents. They were given a list of people that called. And they would read the questionnaire to a willing respondent, take down all their responses, and then eventually, that was converted into a database, which was then analyzed. Results would then be published as a press release, which was sent out to all the mass media and a host of other organizations and groups in the county. And also, there would be an opportunity to use the results in classrooms.

So, we've done this for every semester since I got there, so that is, I guess, we're looking at my 50th survey this fall. Naturally, the fall is another problem because of COVID. And so, there are no students to do the calling, and the way in which then it occurs is by using a web panel that I put together.

Dan Baum:           But even before COVID and switching to a web panel, it seems to me that surveys would be changing just by the nature of people don't answer their home phone necessarily. How was that already evolving pre-COVID?

Dan Nataf:            This is a dilemma that the survey industry as a whole has of trying to... There's the declining response rate problem, and there's the emergence of cell phone only households that's the problem. The response rates on cell phones are even lower than they are for landlines, because obviously, people who have cell phones can be anywhere. They could be out to dinner, in a movie theater, absolutely anywhere when you call them. And they're not going to answer, right? They're just going to decline the call. So, we got a call a lot more to get the sample size that we need from a cell phone prone population.

Dan Baum:           Right. And what's the process you use to come up with the questions that you survey each semester?

Dan Nataf:            Every semester, it's a little bit of a challenge trying to figure out what are the big things to talk about. So, I have a survey committee. Basically, it's been an advisory board to the center, which meets before each survey. And I try to interact with them before we meet, but my goal is to try to get from them suggestions about topics that they see as particularly pressing or important. And when we do meet, I present them a draft of the questionnaire. And in it, I kind of overload it with lots of questions, and we try to spend some time prioritizing and taking out things and so forth.

Dan Baum:           It seems to me too you're describing that in some years, it's a challenge to come up with some of the topics. I don't mean to be crass, but right now from a survey standpoint, it's a goldmine. I mean, you could just take a broomstick and swing one direction. There's so many issues. And of course, it's an election year. So I would think you, this time, would have had the opposite problem that there's so much to survey about.

Dan Nataf:            Yes, that is exactly right. This time, there's an abundance of topics. So, I basically brought it down to three or four. So in my mind, the presidential election seems important. So yes, that's in it. The race relations, police brutality, that seems important so that's in it. The other side of it, of course, the economy and COVID are obviously still here as big issues so there's part of it that goes there. And then there were some county-specific issues that are more closely tied to initiatives of the county executive. So, that's like a fourth segment.

But yeah, when I met with my group there, the survey was 11 pages long. And when they're phone surveys, I go for six pages. And so, yeah, we got just too much in there. It's just, what don't you want to know? I want to know it all, right? And so, the temptation is just to keep adding and expanding and nuancing and doing more because you can always think of a reason.

I should also mention that I have been trying to get my students to participate in the topic selection, sort of question, not so much refinement, but just suggestions about questions because obviously, they have a different series of interests, right, than general public. And it might be that they have a question within the COVID general area or in terms of Black Lives Matter or something like that. And so, there's a back and forth that we can go on that way and I try to engage them just because it's important for them to understand that, particularly if they're going to be on the phone to people, that this is why these are questions that the public might know something about on the one hand and seems important for us as analysts and really as leaders in the community to have feedback so we know the kind of landscape that we're dealing with in terms of attitudes and behaviors in the county. I think they like it. I mean, it makes them feel like they're contributing something that's worthwhile.

Dan Baum:           No, I'm sure they are. That's terrific. You mentioned some of the challenges of the survey industry. Four years ago, with the presidential election, pollsters really got it wrong. So, what happened, and what might they have learned that they would be doing differently now?

Dan Nataf:            Well, they got sort right and sort of wrong. So, it's just depends on at what level we cut in. On national polling, they were mostly pretty accurate. They always knew that Hillary Clinton was going to come out ahead. I mean that, every poll virtually had predicted that. And she did, right? So, she was like two and a half, three points ahead nationally in terms of the popular vote. And so, hurrah, we got it right.

The problem is that the frequency and technical qualities of the polls that they were doing in swing states, that was the problem. So, they weren't doing enough polling, and they did not catch the importance of education as a, basically, as a weighting variable. And so, the non-college educated males, but just generally everybody in the white non-college educated group, swung. These were kind of Obama voters who swung to Trump, and they didn't catch that. And as a result, they underestimated Trump's vote in Wisconsin, Michigan, Pennsylvania, places like that. And so, that was the problem.

So I think that this year, they're doing a lot more polling in swing states, and big organizations are putting their money into it and they're much more sensitive to a proper weighting. The thing that is striking about the polling for this year is the unchanging quality of the kind of Biden six and a half to seven point lead that has been just unchanging. It doesn't vary.

Dan Baum:           Well, let me pick up on, you mentioned the swing states. So right after the 2016 election, you made a presentation on campus about how Trump won the deciding states, the voters as you just referenced. What do you see this time the strategy or paths that these two candidates taking to try to win?

Dan Nataf:            The biggest challenge for an incumbent is to have things not go right in the year leading up to the election, and then the opponent says, "Don't think too much about me. But think about this entire process as a referendum on the incumbent." And so, Trump's problem is that the economy faltered and this whole pandemic and the pandemic response. It's not looking good. And whether you can blame the administration for a failed rollout or you can blame federalism for defying any sense of centralized leadership, who knows? But the president takes credit when times are good, and the president is blamed when times are bad, right? You go both ways.

And so, he is running on a record, and his theory is that he can argue that the economy was great pre-COVID. And so, give me four more years, and I'll bring back the strong economy. Just kind of ignore the moment right now. That's his pitch. And then he tries to also argue that Biden is a person that is either feeble and old. Although, I'm not sure that really the contrast between him and Biden is that great on that. But then he plays out that Biden is under great pressure to do things that the Bernie Sanders sort of wing of the Democratic Party would have him do. And so, he's going to bring socialism to America and kind of uses that as a kind of word that's meant to evoke communism and Soviets and Cold War and God knows what else.

And then on the other hand, he's doing a kind of Nixon law and order thing and trying to argue that the main thing you should remember about Black Lives Matter protest is that they're not protests but they are riots. And so that the key thing to focus on is property destruction, mayhem in the streets, fights. And so, he becomes then the law and order guy that's meant to use the heavier hand of policing entities to try to restore order. It's a little tough when the problem is the police. It's a challenge. And so, you're trying to appeal to people who are insecure about chaos on the streets without really addressing the tiger in the cage, which is the behavior of the police that has led to the protest.

Dan Baum:           Well, it's interesting what you're saying, the referendum on the incumbent, but in some ways, Clinton's strategy was similar in that she was essentially attacking his character. And ultimately, that didn't work in terms of winning the actual election. Is Biden being clear enough in what he represents as opposed to just saying it's a referendum on Trump?

Dan Nataf:            Biden has been very parsimonious on policy, and it's pretty obvious why that is. To get John Kasich and Bernie Sanders at the convention, both saying, "Biden's our guy," that is not a policy agenda. That is just a, I'm not Trump and so it's referendum on Trump. Trump wants to make it kind of a choice, and maybe he'll be more successful over time doing that. But Biden has a really difficult task of keeping this very large umbrella together and not getting buried in details about the public option versus Medicare for All, whether he endorses the Green New Deal, what it actually means, what his carbon neutral timeline is. I mean, these are kind of mind-boggling topics that polarize, right?

And Trump, he sort of avoids policy as a general rule. A lot of it is inconsequential. If you say, "Well, what was your China policy? Tariffs, where has it gotten you?" "Well, not much." "How much of the wall have you actually built?" "Well, a few miles." I mean, he was able to reduce immigration quite a bit. And so, that I think appeals to the voters who would have been all excited about the wall to begin with, so there's some promises kept argument that's in there. Of course, he's losing some sort of recent sort of successes in foreign policy vis-a-vis Israel, and maybe some people care about that. I'm not sure how many.

Dan Baum:           Of course, it's happening all at the federal level. But as you've said, you focus a lot on local issues. Other than that big election, are there other state or local-level issues or elections that we should be watching?

Dan Nataf:            Well, elections are off-presidential years, right, for the state and local. And so, there's not anything specific like that happening right now as such. And so, Steuart Pittman's in the middle of his term. Hogan's in the middle of his second term. I think one of the tensions that you do see between the county exec and the governor has been about the pace of reopening, the scale and scope and pace of reopening. And again, the governor seems to fixate on positivity numbers and saying, "Okay, tests show the positives are down so let's move forward. Allow movie theaters to open up. Allow higher densities in indoor restaurants," and so forth. The county execs have been in urban areas, right, or kind of suburban areas like Anne Arundel but just in general around the beltway and to a lesser extent around Baltimore have been reluctant to open up as fast as Hogan would want. And it's same story with schools.

And I think that that's a significant tension because it's really pitting two different perceptions of where we are in terms of COVID recovery. And it's easy to say, "Open it up," because you seem like you're invigorating the economy. You're getting people back to work. They're able to earn an income. Hey, their kids are no longer in the house and needing supervision. There are so many plusses to opening up. But a resurgence of COVID is not one of them. And so, I think that there's a lot of discretion. It's like different teams are advising and giving their own perceptions. Hogan's got a team around him, but then so does Pittman. And so, I think that that's one of the tensions that I've been perceiving, and it's something to certainly follow.

Dan Baum:           Well, of course, you're right in the thick of that with your survey. So, where are you in the process for the fall, and when do you complete the survey and have the results?

Dan Nataf:            We met with my advisory group about a week and a half ago, and I have sort of put it aside. I'm going to work on it this weekend and hopefully get something more or less final out. My goal is to have it in the field October 9. It'll stay on the field for a week, as again, it's all online. So, it gets sent out using SurveyMonkey. They've got the entire list of all the recipients' email. And it just goes out that way. Ticklers, reminders go out a couple times during the process.

Again, the logistics of it are so much simpler than having to organize an on-campus calling process, but the samples are different. This is one of the things that I've seen over the years is that when you call, you get a more diverse group, racially diverse, socioeconomically, educationally, in every way. The people who seem to opt in to web panels are disproportionally, rich, educated, and white. And so, we do not get what we have been getting in terms of poorer people, people of color, and the like.

And so, this causes some challenges because we are seeking a representative sample. And if you're getting people self-selecting out of the pool of those to whom you're communicating, then how reliable is the result?

Dan Baum:           Right. Well, you've been doing it for quite some time. So, did you say this was your 50th survey?

Dan Nataf:            I think it is. Yeah.

Dan Baum:           That's a milestone. So, congratulations.

Dan Nataf:            It is. Thank you.

Dan Baum:           What do you feel you have learned or gained the most from your years of surveying the community?

Dan Nataf:            I guess an appreciation for what's static and what changes. A lot of the time, I just say I'm curious about something, and I say, "Let's see what's going on with the public. They think the way I do." And then sometimes, they do. Sometimes, they don't. Or at least I have numbers now to say here's 62% who seem to think that climate change is a big deal. Well, how would I know any of that having not surveyed? So for me, it's kind of a constant exploration and almost a revelation that occurs when I get the results because as you keep doing them, some of them you kind of got the bag. You kind of say, "Okay, I think I know about this topic or this set of behaviors." And so, when you get to a new one, just, you're kind of back on the age of discovery. You're trying to say, "What's going on in this thing?"

Dan Baum:           Well, I like this view of static versus what changes. That's really the long view. So from that lens, from the lens of a political scientist, what do you see static and what's changing? I'll put it in the context of the theme of our podcast of redefine, how might we be redefining ourselves at this point in time? Or perhaps, do we have the opportunity to redefine ourselves at this point in time?

Dan Nataf:            Well, most of the redefinition that's been occurring over the years has been I think a generally unhealthy one. And that is that the American public, and even right down to Anne Arundel County, has been increasingly viewing virtually everything through a partisan lens. And so, we have become more polarized, more suspicious of the motives of others, elected officials not your party. And I think it has coarsened public discourse and the general conviviality of life. And this was certainly greatly accelerated during the election of Trump and during his period in office, right down to the entire Supreme Court replacement of Ruth Bader Ginsburg problem. I mean, it's just, it is almost impossible to find a way of people meeting in the middle.

                                    At local government, you always hope that that wouldn't be the case, because potholes and running local government efficiency seems like something that is more nuts and bolts and not high-level ideological. But how the police is run, defunding it or reorganizing or changing its functions, going through a different reconceptualization of what training means, all this, it trickles down from the top. I mean, Anne Arundel is not an island isolated from general trends. And so, it remains to be seen whether there's any way to putting Humpty Dumpty back together into a time when justices would get 97 votes in the Senate and the equivalent as it trickles down right to our level. But I'm always optimistic, but I'm also realistic. And so, I hope for the best, but I expect anything.

Dan Baum:           Well, so much happens at the local level where the work really gets done. Or some people like to say all politics is local. So hopefully, that's where the solutions can be, and there'll be less partisanship or polarizing because as you said, we got to be able to fix potholes and such so.

Dan Nataf:            That's so true.

Dan Baum:           Well, Dan, it's been great speaking with you. Thank you for your insights. And I look forward to the fall survey results.

Dan Nataf:            I do too. All right, Dan. Well, it's good to be on. Thanks for inviting me.

Dan Baum:           Take care and be well.

Dan Nataf:            Yep. See you.

During an election we find ourselves at a crossroads: a chance to decide between maintaining our current direction or turning onto another path. Our country is so divided, no matter which path we choose, there will be those who are disappointed or distraught.

Through his years conducting the local survey, Dan Nataf said he’s gained an appreciation for what is static and what is changing. Wouldn’t it be nice if what was static was our shared values and what changed was our divisiveness? In today’s climate, that feels like such a long shot, but it’s not impossible.

The lessons we’ve learned through this podcast can help. If we nurture curiosity and ask powerful questions, we can create conversations that move us forward. A shift toward empathy and gratitude can liberate us from restrictions placed there by others or our own way of thinking. Change is a choice.

Many have strong hopes for the election. No matter which direction our country chooses, let’s make a bipartisan pact to approach one another with compassion. The potholes of discord can be fixed.


We're here to help.

Strategic Communications