Polling Teams Fly 'Under the Radar' for National Iraq Survey

ByABC News
December 12, 2005, 3:42 PM

Dec. 12, 2005 — -- With violence on the rise, the polling team responsible for ABC News' exclusive new scientific survey of Iraq decided new techniques were needed to complete the project.

"We made ourselves leaner and faster," said Dr. Christoph Sahm, the project director for Oxford Research International, which has conducted five national surveys in Iraq -- two of which were commissioned by ABC News and other media partners.

"Quick in and quick out" was the watchword. Sahm's team dropped the 50-person buses they had used for previous surveys and made themselves more inconspicuous in order to canvass the country. They split up into smaller groups and traveled to more locations, while conducting fewer interviews and using shorter questionnaires.

The 35 Iraqi fieldworkers knocked on doors for more than a month this fall to complete the 1,711 interviews that comprised the survey.

Oxford Research International said each fieldworker trained at least 200 hours in the theory and practice of social research. The training this year also focused on security issues and strategies for avoiding trouble.

Careful preparation and new techniques paid off, yielding an 82 percent response rate.

Sahm said the low-profile techniques kept his people out of harm's way. Each survey team had letters from the University of Oxford, the University of Baghdad and the University of Dohuk to pass checkpoints and ward off suspicions, he said.

"We fly under the radar and managed to enter a location, target the households, interview, and depart, usually before local officials and clerics got wind of our presence," Sahm said.

This time around, no one was detained by U.S. troops or Iraqi militia.

Sahm said team leaders would inquire about recent reports of violence before moving forward, and nine times out of 10, the situation would clear up in time for his interviewers to swoop in.

"If team leaders found trouble at the local level, they waited up to three days before moving in," he said. "Sometimes they went to a neighboring location first, returning to the troubled area later."

In addition, the fieldworkers always traveled to hotels in nearby towns or cities, never staying where they conducted interviews to avoid being pursued or tracked down.

To avoid sticky situations, Oxford updated interviewers' strategies for approaching households and respondents to avoid interviews spiraling out of control.

In one case, a man shouted insults at the interviewer about the United States and Kurds when the questionnaire focused on leadership. With tempers flaring, the man's family rushed in and threatened the interviewer. Sahm said this highlighted the need to send two team members to each household as often as possible.

Once in a particular household, Sahm said his teams had a list of reasons to convince people to answer the poll. They explained the questionnaire would be used for academic research, and also stressed it would enable the outside world to get a true picture of how Iraqis felt.

Half of the interviewers were women, Sahm said, because respondents may respond differently to a female than they would to a man.

"The job has made them [women] more assertive," Sahm said. "This reinforces our tactic of choosing qualified candidates based on ability, not gender."