BROOKINGS, S.D. (KELO) — In his eight years at South Dakota State, Dr. David Wiltse has learned a lot about South Dakotans.  

The political science professor has learned even more in the past year while spearheading The SDSU Poll, a research tool for the political science program. The SDSU Poll released findings for the first time in October 2020 as the poll works to “analyze issues that are important to South Dakotans from an objective, scientific and non-partisan perspective.”    

“There aren’t many people that are regularly polling the South Dakota electorate,” Wiltse told KELOLAND News. “It is important what’s going on in the minds of South Dakotans. There are a lot of issues that people vary quite a lot on. It’s important for us to understand why that is.”   

The research group has conducted four surveys and released findings in nearly 30 press releases since October 2020. Wiltse emphasized The SDSU Poll is academic based on “trying to answer some important research questions.” 

“Anything else we pick up along the way, we share,” Wiltse said. “Anytime you dive into a research question, you’re going to find out all these other things you didn’t really know about and that’s where these ideas are hatched.” 

Each poll starts with a research question, Wiltse said. After one is picked, questions are formed for a survey that are “appropriate to measure whatever it is we’re trying to understand.” Those questions are followed by an approval process by an ethical review board that Wiltse said “goes line-by-line, word-by-word and punctuation mark after punctuation mark to make sure no rules or laws are being broken.”  

When the questions have been picked and approved, the poll goes into the field to registered voters in South Dakota, drawn at random, Wiltse said. 

“Technology is a big help here,” Wiltse said. “It’s online, which means we can ask certain kinds of questions that you can’t ask over the phone or if you were giving a mail survey.” 

The SDSU Poll has been conducted through online surveys, open for at least a week or longer. Each respondent goes through a verification process by entering a specific code to enter the website hosting the survey questions for the poll. 

“Afterwards, we have to process all the data,” said Wiltse, adding he and his colleague, Dr. Filip Viskupic, do the bulk of the “busy work” related to the poll. 

Wiltse said the SDSU Poll isn’t too expensive to conduct and noted SDSU backs the poll financially with private funds as well as some applied grants. Conducting the poll in a university setting has allowed Wiltse to use other SDSU faculty in specialized areas for certain polls. He cited working with on-campus pharmacists on polls studying COVID-19 vaccine hesitancy and psychologists when looking at impacts on family and workplace settings.  

“They can really make these polls as effective as possible,” Wiltse said. 

Besides a few polls done by the University of South Dakota’s Chiesman Center for Democracy or by private firms hired by media outlets, polls aren’t routinely conducted in South Dakota. 

“We are living kind of in a polling desert,” Wiltse said. “Any contribution that any of us can make is valuable.” 

A poll is a ‘snapshot’ of time 

The SDSU Poll’s research team conducts polls for research projects and Wiltse said professors are very keen at finding deficiencies and highlighting information that is lacking. 

“Polls can be very, very misused, misinterpreted and a lot of bad information can be generated by reading a poll in the wrong way,” Wiltse said. “You are taking a snapshot of the electorate at a particular time.” 

He said The SDSU Poll attempts to stay away from simply reporting what percent of the population thinks and focuses more on the why. 

“We are more interested in connecting different variables out there that might be driving people’s opinions on a particular subject,” Wiltse said. “It’s not so much what proportion of people but what kind of a person is it? That’s what we’re really focusing on.” 

He stressed the small sample size with the surveys. The most recent survey — “The South Dakota COVID-19 Family Impact Survey 2021” — took place July 31 to Aug. 14 with a total of 573 registered South Dakota voters. The biggest survey had a total of 3,057 respondents. 

“You are looking at a snapshot in time but also just a piece of the population,” Wiltse said. “That piece of the population you are looking at might not be as representative of the whole population as you think. You have to be very careful about the assumptions you make.” 

Wiltse said despite the homogeneity and likeness across the state, there’s “a lot of subtlety and nuisance going on.”   

“We are really able to look inside the Republican Party here and see some of these differences in the different kinds of Republicans and different coalitions within that party,” Wiltse said.