Roger Williams University Students Learn from Election Day Exit Poll

From voters' pick of presidential candidates to the top issues facing the country and the state, students gain hands-on experience conducting exit polls

Students sift through data they collected from an election poll survey.
Kayla Harris, Danielle Combs, Elizabeth Annitto and Welinton Vargas (left to right) designed and coded an exit poll survey they conducted on Election Day, then compared their data to actual election results for Rhode Island.
Edward Fitzpatrick

BRISTOL, R.I. – Roger Williams University students fanned out across Rhode Island on Election Day, conducting an exit poll on the presidential race and gauging the top issues on voters’ minds.

The survey did not constitute a representative sample of the Rhode Island population. But the 39 students talked to 666 voters everywhere from the Pell elementary school in Newport to Temple Beth-El in Providence to the Graniteville elementary school in Johnston.

In the presidential race, 74 percent of those surveyed said they voted for Hillary Clinton, 17 percent for Donald Trump, 3 percent for Gary Johnson and 2 percent for Jill Stein. That contrasts with the actual statewide results, which gave Clinton 54 percent, Trump 40 percent, Johnson 3 percent and Stein 2 percent, according to the state Board of Elections.

When asked to name the top issue facing the country, 29 percent of those surveyed said the economy, 16 percent said climate change, 14 percent said national security and 12 percent said education. When asked to name the top issue facing the state, 29 percent of those surveyed said the economy, 23 percent said jobs, 11 percent said education and 10.5 percent said corruption. When asked what direction the country is heading in, 60 percent of those surveyed said the right direction and 33 percent said the wrong direction.

The Election Day results focused attention on why so many national polls in the presidential race had been off base. RWU political science Professors June Speakman and David Moskowitz said designing and executing the exit poll showed students how actual results can differ from polling results based on who is chosen for a survey. In this case, this poll under-represented Republicans, males and Latino voters, and it included too many polling sites in Providence, where Clinton received 81 percent of the actual vote.

Emily Rizzo, a sophomore political science major and one of the team leaders, said she employed organizational, leadership and team-building skills as part of the project. 

“It was definitely a hands-on learning experience," Rizzo said. "I’ve never done coding or survey design before.” 

Speakman, who teaches a campaigns and elections class, said this marks the fourth election cycle that RWU students have done exit polls.

“Exit polls are a primary tool to understand which voters behaved which way and why,” she said. And the experience gives students a chance to become more familiar with and interested the state in which they’re studying, she said.

Moskowitz, who teaches classes in research methods and public opinion, said a few RWU students have pursued professional polling careers, and much of the educational value comes from analyzing the polling data in light of actual election results. “It’s one thing to explain what you are supposed to do with a poll, but it’s much more valuable to actually do it,” he said.

University of Rhode Island students also conducted exit polls during Tuesday’s elections, and Speakman said that she would like to see RWU, URI and other universities join in conducting more extensive exit polling that would provide insights in the 2018 governor’s race.