Jane Junn enjoyed a sublime “told you so” moment last fall. The USC political science professor had run a public opinion poll that was the first to detect the shift among voters that determined the race for governor. Voters were turning away from Meg Whitman and toward Jerry Brown.
Junn's secret was that she broke the language barrier.
“All polls do phone-survey interviews with all populations in English, but many people don't answer,” Junn says. “Thirteen percent of the state's population is Asian American and 21 percent of California's voters are Latino. If you've always been polling Latinos and Asians in English, you don't know what they really think.”
Twenty years ago, citizens were mostly well-assimilated English speakers, regardless of race or national origin. “Today, however, Asians are the second largest population of voters in the state, and 80 percent of adult Asian Americans are foreign-born,” she says. “California is way out of the curve compared to anyone else.”
For Junn, this information is more than just interesting dinner-party conversation. “It skews the poll results, making populations look less Democratic than they are,” because, she says, people who can't respond in English tend to vote Democratic. So she conducted her own poll of voters in the Brown/Whitman gubernatorial campaign, with controversial results: Republican Whitman's numbers were lower than those found by other polls.
The secret was “to be sure we got everyone who was a voter,” Junn says. The polling team did that by quickly connecting nonfluent English speakers who answered their phones to interviewers who could ask questions in Spanish, Korean, Tagalog, Mandarin, Vietnamese or Cantonese to conduct the poll.
“Our poll was very expensive, very difficult,” Junn says. “Most polling firms can't do this. It's one of the luxuries of being with a university. You don't want to do things the same way when the population is changing.”
What difference does it make? “Public polls are supposed to show the truth,” she says. “You might never know that the vast majority of Californians are actually in favor of the Dream Act,” which would give illegal immigrants who get a high school diploma a chance to earn more permanent residency.
Born in Macon, Ga., to Korean immigrants and raised in Grand Rapids, Mich., Junn went on to earn degrees from the University of Michigan and the University of Chicago. Vivacious and outspoken, she straddles the worlds of totally assimilated American and member of an officially classifiable ethnic/racial group.
As author of New Race Politics in America: Understanding Minority and Immigrant Politics and Education and Democratic Citizenship, as well as an upcoming book on public opinion and immigration, Junn is a perfect fit for the ethnic future-world laboratory that is California.
“When we had the Great Society and all that, it was done on the backs of immigrant voters,” she says. “And the next great coalition that's going to bring in the next wave of huge changes is going to be the same.”