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Methods behind AP-Yahoo News poll on racial views

Saturday, September 20, 2008

This AP-Yahoo News poll was designed to dig into one of the most sensitive subjects in American politics: racial attitudes and their effect on how people will vote in an election in which Democrat Barack Obama could become the first black president.

The survey, designed in partnership with Stanford University, included overt questions aimed at understanding people's attitudes toward blacks, such as how well words like "friendly" or "violent" describe African-Americans. They were also asked their views of Obama and Republican John McCain.

Since many people are uncomfortable discussing race with pollsters and others they do not know, the poll also used subtler techniques.

For one thing, the survey was conducted online, as have all AP-Yahoo News polls since they began last November. Studies have shown people are more willing to reveal potentially unpopular attitudes on a computer than in questioning by a live interviewer.

The poll also used a technique aimed at measuring what psychologists call "affect misattribution." This involved showing faces of people of different races quickly on a screen before displaying a neutral image that people were asked to rate as pleasant or unpleasant. Studies have shown that people consciously or unconsciously transfer their feelings about the photograph to the object they are rating.

In addition, random groups of subjects were presented lists with varying numbers of subjects, such as increased federal gasoline taxes, corporations polluting the environment and a black president. They were then asked how many of those items _ not which ones _ were upsetting. By comparing each group's answers, researchers were able to estimate how many people were upset by the items relating to blacks.

The researchers compared the subjects' ages, party identification, perceptions of Obama and McCain, and other factors to their racial attitudes. This allowed them to create mathematical formulas predicting the likelihood that people would vote for either Obama or McCain, based on their different characteristics and attitudes. The models allowed them to estimate how much impact each factor has on each candidate's support, controlling for other factors.

By using their formulas, the researchers were able to conclude that race was a factor in how people vote, independent of their other political views and their demographic characteristics. They then used the formulas to predict how much support Obama is losing because of his race.

The result: Obama would receive an estimated 6 percentage points more support if there were no racial prejudice. While the model was exhaustive, it is hard to know if it included every variable that could have an impact in this election.

The AP-Yahoo News Poll is a unique study that has been tracking a group of about 2,000 people from across the country throughout the presidential campaign, starting last November.

This sixth wave of the study included interviews with 2,227 adults between Aug. 27 and Sept. 5. It was conducted by Knowledge Networks of Menlo Park, Calif., under the supervision of AP's polling unit.

The interviews were conducted online. The original sample was drawn from a panel of respondents Knowledge Networks recruited via random sampling of landline telephone households with listed and unlisted numbers. The company provides Web access to panel recruits who don't already have it.

Results were weighted, or adjusted, to reflect the adult population by factors such as age, sex, race, region and education.

No more than one time in 20 should chance variations in the sample cause results to vary more than plus or minus 2.1 percentage points from the answers that would have been obtained if all adults in the U.S. were surveyed.

There are other potentially greater sources of variability in surveys, including the wording and order of questions.

The questions and results for this poll are available at http://news.yahoo.com/polls and at http://surveys.ap.org.

Copyright 2008 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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