Politics, Opinion Polls, and Liberal Education at Work

By Andrew Huff

Judge Sarah Tilghman Hughes (ΦBK, Goucher College, 1917) entered the national media on November 22, 1963, following the assassination of President John. F. Kennedy, writes the Texas State Historical Association. In the aftermath, Vice President Lyndon B. Johnson specifically called for Judge Hughes to administer the presidential oath of office to him aboard Air Force One.

Cecil W. Stoughton’s iconic black-and-white photo on the plane captures Johnson, standing between in between his wife Lady Bird Johnson and Jacquelyn Kennedy, delivering the oath to Judge Hughes. 


Judge Hughes is best known for her appearance in that somber photo and for being the only female judge to swear in a US president (“Sarah T. Hughes: A Woman Who Asked What She Could Do for Her Country”). However, it is her extensive and influential public service career that truly defines her place in American history. 

According to the American Association of University Women (AAUW), Judge Hughes served in the Texas House of Representatives between 1930 and 1935, at which time she was appointed to serve as a judge for the 14th District Court of Texas (becoming the first female district court judge in the state’s history). Then, in 1961, President John F. Kennedy appointed her to serve as a judge on the federal district court in Texas. 

Susan Tyler Hitchcock, author of Roe v. Wade: Protecting a Woman’s Right to Choose, notes that Judge Hughes also presided over the Roe v. Wade (1970) case in Texas that placed it on the path to the Supreme Court.

According to the Texas Historical Association, Judge Hughes’ earlier work as a district judge supported efforts to amend the Texas state constitution in 1953 to allow women to serve as jurors. In addition, she helped establish the legal pretext for women to advocate for equal pay for equal work (Shultz v. Brookhaven General Hospital, 1969).

Hughes died on April 23, 1985, but an endowment left by her has supported the creation and administration of the Goucher Poll since 2012.

In a recent interview, Mileah Kromer, Director of the Goucher Poll and the Sarah T. Hughes Field Politics Center at Goucher College, described public opinion polling as “the ideal liberal arts activity because it transcends disciplinary boundaries.”

The bi-annual poll uses political science as a foundation for linking mathematics with the language arts, psychology, and other areas of study. The poll creates an interdisciplinary learning lab by merging statistical analysis and sampling methodology with discussions of linguistics, interviewer bias, and question order effects. Its diverse pedigree leads Kromer to believe “anyone from any major could find their niche in it.” 

Students select topics for the poll, write questions, conduct interviews, analyze results, and even help craft press releases.

Kromer says: “Its more than the ‘drop in the bucket’ kind of assignment… it’s not a simulation, but a real project,” one that informs state public policy.

She describes how students gain a greater appreciation for the work that informs political knowledge through a first-hand examination of the complexity of data collection. They also get an opportunity to support democratic governance by helping link policymakers with the opinions of general citizens, regardless of whether they are likely voters or not. 

Kromer has also begun to deepen the liberal arts model by conducting a “Polling for the Public Good” series that began in fall 2013. Students in Kromer’s State and Local Politics class met with officials from the Maryland State Parks Department, designed poll questions about citizen perceptions of state parks, and presented an executive report to department officials.

Students got to work on “project teams” as professional consultants, while the Maryland State Parks Department received quantifiable insight into how to better engage in environmental advocacy.

The partnership fosters a civic relationship where, as Kromer says, “we provide quality public opinion polling at no cost and they give back to us something without monetary value – experience.” 

Andrew Huff is a senior at Goucher College majoring in Political Science. Goucher College is home to the Beta of the Maryland Chapter of Phi Beta Kappa.