WCU’s Public Policy Institute launches local opinion poll project

 Political scientists at Western Carolina University recently collaborated with a Western North Carolina newspaper to develop a public opinion poll designed to measure the thoughts of Jackson County voters on a variety of local issues.

 The WCU Public Policy Institute/Smoky Mountain News Poll is considered the first survey instrument of its type to specifically provide data about political opinions on a countywide basis, said Christopher Cooper, PPI director and associate professor of political science and public affairs.
“Unlike previous polls, which took a more regional look at various issues of the day, this poll focuses solely on the mindset of those who live in Jackson County,” Cooper said. “While such regional polling can provide valuable data about opinions of the people of the mountains of Western North Carolina, we also realized that what is important to a resident of Morganton may not be so important to someone in Murphy. That’s why we chose to hone in on a single county.”
The PPI utilized the services of Public Policy Polling in Raleigh for a random sample survey of registered voters in Jackson County. Through a computerized telephone questionnaire conducted in June, the company obtained answers from nearly 600 county residents to a series of 11 questions on topics ranging from confidence in local and federal government to support for countywide sales of alcohol. The poll also asked questions regarding political and ideological affiliation, opinions about state and national officials, and attitudes toward the Tea Party movement.
The poll, which has a margin of error of plus or minus 4 percent, does not reach residents who are not registered voters, said Gibbs Knotts, head of the WCU political science and public affairs department.
“This means that we can draw some strong conclusions about Jackson County’s registered voters, but not about the county’s population in general,” Knotts said. “Registered voters tend to be more educated, older and more engaged in the political process. One of the limitations of the poll is we are not able to examine the opinions of those who may feel disenfranchised.”
Nevertheless, poll organizers say they think the survey provides valid data about the opinions of Jackson County residents.
Scott McLeod, publisher of the Smoky Mountain News, called the poll “a great starting point” in fostering a dialogue about issues that are facing the region today. “Anytime you can get people to discuss their views on government and elected leaders, there’s a chance it will lead to better decision-making,” McLeod said. “Maybe a frank dialogue in the media about leadership and politics – one based on actual poll results from mountain voters – will contribute some solutions to some of our problems.”
Among the findings of the first WCU Public Policy Institute/Smoky Mountain News poll:
Forty-six percent of respondents say they have an unfavorable opinion of Jackson County government. Thirty-three percent indicated a favorable opinion, while 20 percent were unsure.
A majority of respondents (62 percent) have an unfavorable opinion of the federal government, compared to 29 percent favorable and 9 percent unsure.
Most Jackson County registered voters (56 percent) support legalizing alcohol sales across all of Jackson County. Thirty-nine percent do not support alcohol sales outside Sylva and Dillsboro, while 4 percent have no preference.
Opinion on the Tea Party movement is evenly split, with 42 percent having a favorable opinion, 40 percent having an unfavorable opinion, and 18 percent not sure.
Most respondents (49 percent) have a favorable opinion of Jackson County schools, while 27 percent do not, and 24 percent are unsure.
N.C. Gov. Beverly Perdue has an unfavorable rating among 44 percent of respondents and a favorable rating among 33 percent (with 23 percent unsure), while U.S. Rep. Heath Shuler has an unfavorable rating with 39 percent of respondents and a favorable rating among 46 percent (with 15 percent unsure).
For complete poll results, visit the Public Policy Institute website at http://ppi.wcu.edu.