Dr. Lee B. Becker during his presentation.

Pollsters Never Explained What Qualification Meant, Cox Center Director Said of Polls about Palin

Political polling experts in the United States failed to ask the right questions about voter reactions to Republican Vice Presidential Candidate Sarah Palin, a University of Georgia professor told a gathering of public opinion researchers, mostly from Arab countries, at a three-day conference in Cairo, Egypt, in November.

The pollsters focused on the narrow question “Is Palin Qualified to be Presindent,” Dr. Lee B. Becker said, rather than trying to understand what nearly four in 10 of the voting public meant when they answered affirmatively.

Dr. Becker said his analysis of the polling data now that the election is in the past suggests that many people defined qualification quite differently from the way the political elite, including the media and the polling organizations, defined it.

The Georgia researcher made his comments at a Plenary Session of the Second Cairo International Conference on Public Opinion in a session on elections and political campaigns.

For many, Becker said, Palin “was qualified because she was unqualified” in the eyes of that elite. Palin’s lack of a connection with Washington and the East Coast establishment were a significant part of her “qualification,” he said.

The University of Georgia professor said the narrow focus on questions on “qualification” did not help the public understand why people want someone in the presidency without experience in Washington, without a connection to the foreign affairs establishment, and without degrees from the traditional elite educational institutions.

Becker said polling organizations should have used more open-ended questions that would have allowed them to understand better public sentiment.

Dr. Becker is director of the James M. Cox Jr. Center for International Mass Communication Training and Research in the Grady College of Journalism and Mass Communication at the University of Georgia.
An expert on media and public opinion, Dr. Becker was an invited speaker at the Cairo meeting, which was held from Nov. 8-11 at the Marriott Hotel in Cairo. Dr. Becker also was an invited speaker at the first Cairo public opinion conference in February of 2007.

Dr. Becker said the media focused very heavily on Palin’s lack of traditional qualifications in its coverage of her candidacy.

In the session with Dr. Becker, Mahar Mangahas, co-founder and president of Social Weather Stations in the Philippines, reviewed the record of his polling in predicting electoral outcomes in his country.
The session was chaired by Aly El Din Helal, information secretary for the ruling National Democratic Party in Egypt.

Other countries represented at the event, which kicked off with a session attended by more than 100 participants, included Germany, Oman, the UK, Saudi Arabia, Palestine, Yemen and Algeria.

The conference was organized by the Information and Decision Support Center in the Egyptian cabinet and sponsored in part by the Ford Foundation and the Konrad Adenauer Foundation.

During a break in the conference, Dr. Becker made a quick trip to the Faculty of Mass Communication at the University of Cairo, where he summarized his research to a group of about 30 undergraduate students.