Professor receives grant to cover massive election survey panel

By Patrick Johnston

(Cade Belisle/Daily Collegian)
(Cade Belisle/Daily Collegian)

Brian Schaffner, chair of the department of political science at the University of Massachusetts has received a grant from the National Science Foundation worth $456,878 that will cover the funding of the largest multi-year election panel survey on American politics ever created.

This is the second of two grants by the NSF to this project, the first which was worth over $500,000. The NSF has taken a special interest in this project, according to Schaffner.

“It’s a unique data collection opportunity,” he said.

He explained that this survey will study, “voter choice, why people have the opinions that they do and the extent to which people are represented in Congress.” He said the survey will also look at how the opinions of voters change over time.

According to Schaffner, this data can be used to assess the public opinion on issues and politicians as well as assess how well they are informed about matters of politics. By comparing the data on the individual’s choice of representative and opinion on particular issues, those studying the data will be able to see see how voters’ opinions on issues align with that of their candidate of choice.

“We can look at how much they know about how their representatives in government vote,” Schaffner said.

He added this survey, conducted along with Stephen Ansolabehere, a professor of government at Harvard University, began in 2010 with a group of 30,000 participants. This group would drop to around 19,000 in 2012 during the presidential election. In this last survey, there will be 9,000 remaining participants.

This decrease, according to Schaffner, is not uncommon, and the fact that 9,000 participants remain is encouraging and higher than expected.

“It’s very hard to keep people answering questions for so many years,” Schaffner added when asked about the decrease. He explained the project can lose track of participants if they move as well.

There were some who expressed skepticism at the idea of maintaining enough participants over four years, but Schaffner, happy with the results, said he was “so glad that we were able to prove them wrong.” He went on to say that the project has gone very smoothly and has encountered few problems since it began.

However, Schaffner does not see the survey continuing much longer.

“I think we’re looking at the end of the road,” he said.

He added that despite retaining more participants than expected, extending the survey for another two years would be impractical because of the inevitable decrease in the amount of data that could be collected.

Participants are asked to take a 20 minute online questionnaire before each election and a 10 minute questionnaire after elections have ended. The pre-election data for this year’s election has been collected and the post-election questionnaire is almost complete.

“We’re basically 90 percent done with the final questionnaire,” Schaffner said. He predicted that this final part of the survey should be prepared by the end of this week. Data from the earlier stages of the project is being analyzed and will soon be added with the upcoming mid-term elections.

Schaffner said a number of factors are taken into account when choosing people to participate in the survey, including income, age, gender, race, education and interest in politics.

These qualities are examined in the interest of creating the most accurate representative sample possible for the nationwide survey. He explained this information is also used to track opinions within certain groups and how it changes over time.

Schaffner believes this survey may help remedy a problem in the study of politics and elections.

“I think we still don’t know a lot about how people engage in politics,” he said.

Schaffner explained the data gathered will grant insight to those who study the political landscape in the U.S., as well as help politicians see where the public stands on certain issues. When the data is collected, it will also be available to students as a resource for studying elections.

With the largest long-term survey panel on U.S. politics about to come to an end, Schaffner eagerly awaits the results of this four year project.

“I’m excited to see what comes out of it,” he said.

Patrick Johnston can be reached at [email protected]