Sri Lankan Public Opinion

As the American presidential election finally winds down with what appears to be a grudging concession (of sorts) by soon-to-be former President Donald J. Trump, I’ve been thinking about the fickleness of public opinion. Despite pollsters’ valiant attempts to explain and predict the collective attitude of large numbers of people, they often get it wrong, either by mis-measuring the distribution of opinions, or by interpreting accurate data incorrectly. One of the biggest problems is that public opinion can be extraordinarily fickle, especially during, after, and around national security crises. We like to think that there is some stability to public opinion, but in some cases, that kind of stability simply does not exist. One example that stood out to me recently was Sri Lanka. In early 2015, long-time wartime president Mahinda Rajapaksa lost the election to his rival, former health minister Maithripala Sirisena. Rajapaksa had led government forces to bloody victory over the Tamil Tigers in 2009, some 26 years after the insurgents first launched their war of independence. After his victory, Rajapaksa oversaw a tightening of autocratic rule, cracking down on dissent from within Sri Lanka’s minority populations (Tamils and Muslims), as well as within the dominant Sinhalese Buddhist community. One of Rajapaksa’s biggest Achilles heels in the run-up to the 2015 national elections, however, was his heavy reliance on Chinese-funded debt to launch major Sri Lankan infrastructure projects. In the months leading up to the 2015 election, Rajapaksa’s critics zeroed in allegations of corruption, many linked to the Chinese construction projects. Fast forward four years, however, and Rajapaksa was once again elected president. According to the New York Times, public anger at...

Polling a ‘Foreign Tribe’

As the US presidential elections wind their way towards a painful and tortuous conclusion, I’ve been thinking a lot about the difference between reporting on a survey that offers a snapshot in time, as opposed to using polls, and past history, to predict what the results might be in a few days, weeks, or months. My colleagues and I have done lots of surveys over the last eight years in Colombia, India, Mexico, Morocco, Nigeria, and the USA. In all this work, we offered estimates of how many people in a given population engaged in this or that behavior, supported this or that policy, or thought positively/negatively about a particular organization or institution. There is always a confidence interval around every one of those estimates influenced in large part by the number of valid responses. This allows you answer questions like, “what percentage of the population living in the Moroccan cities of Casablanca or Rabat supported this or that political party in May 2015?” Or, “what is the statistical association between attending mosque and believing that women’s rights are human rights?” If I wanted to ask how many people were likely to vote for a specific Moroccan political party in the future, however, I’d have to do so much more than extrapolate from the previous work I’d done with my colleagues. I’d want to have more polls over time, so that I could track trends, and I’d want to figure out a way of predicting who would be likely to actually participate in the election, assuming that participation was voluntary. In the US, pollsters did not do as good a...
Who Thinks Rights Are Respected in the US?

Who Thinks Rights Are Respected in the US?

What do ordinary Americans think about the state of human rights and civil rights in their country? How bad, or good, do they think things are, and why does it matter? Our Survey My colleague Howard Lavine and I surveyed US public opinion in fall 2018 with the help of YouGov, a leading survey firm. Through them, we recruited a nationally representative sample of 2,000 adults who had signed up with the survey group to answer online questions. YouGov’s team contacted each respondent twice, interviewing each in two waves of 22 and 24 minutes, on average. The median response rate was 86%. To achieve a nationally representative sample, YouGov weighted the 2,000 strong sample by gender, age, race, and education. We split these 2,000 respondents into two equal parts and asked the first about their perception of respect for “human rights” in the U.S. and asked the second about their perception of respect for “civil rights.” We found no meaningful difference between the two, and thus report on both combined. For this question, the 0.95% confidence interval was +/- 1.4%. As Table 1 indicates, most (61%) of the general population sample – represented by the green bars – told us that human/civil rights were reasonably well respected, as these respondents told You Gov that civil/human rights in the U.S. were either respected “some” (38%) or “a lot” (23%). The remainder – 39% – said that rights were respected either “a little” (27%) or “not at all” (12%). We rescaled perceived level of respect for human rights to 0-1 for statistical purposes, in which 0 = “rights are not at...
How Telecom Mechanisms Have Impacted Polling, Part Two

How Telecom Mechanisms Have Impacted Polling, Part Two

Some populations are inherently difficult to survey. As a result, their voices rarely figure into studies of public attitudes, financial or medical needs, or consumer preferences. The most overlooked populations include people without access to the Internet; immigrants, refugees, and persons internally displaced within their own countries; homeless persons; and people living in low-income, repressive, or war-torn countries.  Some organizations have made significant steps towards addressing this problem, and one such group is RIWI, a publicly-traded company based in Toronto, Canada. In the intermediate future, my company, Azimuth Social Research, hopes to partner with RIWI on a cross-national survey project.  RIWI’s Random Domain Intercept Technology (RDIT) invites web users worldwide to participate in surveys in their own language. RIWI bypasses national or sub-national web restrictions by leveraging its ownership, or temporary control, of hundreds of thousands of unused, expired, or abandoned web domains. As RIWI explains, web users often stumble across one of these unused domains while surfing the Internet. Often, this stumble takes users to a “404” or similar error page, but when users run across one of RIWI’s sites, they are instead invited to take part in a quick, anonymous survey. RIWI’s system auto-detects the user’s geographic location, which allows them to offer the survey in a relevant language and to geolocate (whenever possible) the respondent’s position.  RIWI’s method is useful in part because it circumvents government restrictions, as no other agency has a list of RIWI-controlled domains. The RIWI domain inventory, moreover, is constantly changing. As a result, RIWI’s survey work is particularly useful in countries such as China, where the government keeps tight control over...

Populism and Trump’s Rhetoric of Distrust for Multinationals

This article was originally published to On Global Leadership. Check out James Ron’s other writings there! President Trump has always been a fair-weather friend of multinational corporations, at one moment embracing them for political advantage and at the next shooting Twitter missives that trigger precipitous crashes in stock value. It’s a bittersweet friendship that lacks all the important elements: trust, respect and loyalty. One reason for the president’s infidelity is his long-held belief that working-class Americans dislike global corporations and, in particular, globalization. In many corners of the American electorate, corporations are viewed as the cause of all the U.S. industrial policies that have resulted in more automation, fewer jobs and reductions in wages over the last 40 years. At first blush, the presidential war of words does not appear to provide Trump with much of an electoral advantage. Indeed, dating back to President Reagan, the embrace of corporations, globalization and trickle-down economic theory – advocated by the neoclassical economist Milton Friedman – have long been a centerpiece of Republican politics. According to a nationally representative survey of 2,000 adults we conducted with the help of YouGov in late 2018, Republican respondents were indeed more trusting of multinationals than either Democrats or Independents. In our survey, we found that self-identified Republicans were a statistically significant 6% more likely to trust multinationals than Democrats and 15% more trusting than Independents. We found similar results when we compared early Trump supporters – defined as those who voted for him in the 2016 Republican primaries – to those who did not. Thus, although none of America’s political tribes has great love for these international corporate behemoths,...

From Qual to Quant and Back

I started my research career as a research consultant for Human Rights Watch in Israel and the Palestinian territories. My “data” came from what qualitative research:  lengthy, face-to-face interviews with knowledgeable people such as politicians, lawyers, human rights activists and ordinary citizens who have either witnessed, or personally experienced, interesting events. (There are other kinds of qualitative research, of course – focus groups, ethnography, journal entries, and more). Interview-based research is physically and emotionally demanding. It requires building a network of contacts to gain access to the right people; persuading those people to trust and speak with you, often for hours; engaging in emotionally intense, face-to-face discussions; carefully building trust and rapport; and then analyzing piles of typed transcripts, scribbled notes, or taped conversations. You either furiously write during the interview while also trying to listen, engage, and come up with new questions, or desperately try to remember as many details as you can to record in writing later. Sometimes, you are lucky enough to tape the conversation and even hire someone to produce a written transcript. Then, however, you are faced with hundreds of pages to wade through. Throughout the 1990s and early 2000s I did interviews of this sort in multiple countries. Often, I used a translator, which adds complexity to the rapport-building exercise but also gives you more time to take notes during the interview, a research companion to talk about the work, and someone to help you navigate the process of finding the right people to speak with. My first translator was a Palestinian journalist, Walid Battrawi, now an important media figure in Ramallah, capital...