On the Front Lines of Election Research

UC Davis students pose for photo on steps of San Francisco City Hall

Behind new UC Davis research findings on voter choices in local elections is a small army of Aggies.

Carrying clipboards and wearing UC Davis-branded clothing, more than 100 undergraduate and graduate students conducted multilingual exit poll surveys of voters at 41 polling places in San Francisco during the 2011 mayoral and the 2012 supervisorial elections.

Political science associate professors Cheryl Boudreau and Scott MacKenzie, along with law professor Christopher Elmendorf, continue to analyze that survey data for insights into what types of information best help voters.

In a forthcoming article in the American Journal of Political Science, the three election experts report on how ethnic group endorsements swayed voters. In a 2018 article in Political Behavior, they analyzed the influence of nonpartisan online voter guides. In a 2015 article in Political Research Quarterly, they demonstrated the effects of newspaper and political party endorsements.

Boudreau said the studies were her first involving exit polls. She typically uses online surveys and laboratory experiments in her studies on whether and when different types of political information help uninformed voters pick candidates or decide ballot measures that best represent their own views. “It was a logistical challenge, but it was fun because it was a real-world election,” she said. “The undergraduates were just fantastic.”

Some students left Davis as early as 3:30 a.m. to carpool to their rendezvous spot at San Francisco City Hall, Boudreau said. “When I got there at 6:45 a.m., at first I thought nobody was there. I went inside City Hall — they had their table set up already, had their name badges on … they took real ownership over it.”

Students were inspired by the willingness of voters to participate in the study, she said. As it got dark, some voters used their phones to shine light on the surveys so they could finish filling them out.

The exit poll surveys, conducted in English, Spanish and Chinese, comprised an experiment — telling some voters about the endorsements that candidates received from particular groups (such as the Chinese American Citizens Alliance or the Latino Democratic Club), while other voters did not receive the endorsements before expressing their preferences for the candidates. The study also involved online surveys to compare voters’ and candidates’ views on local policy issues.

Among the results is the finding that the ethnic group endorsements increased support among Latinos and Chinese Americans for candidates backed by their respective ethnic group, the researchers found. Among whites, the results were mixed — the endorsements increased support from whites who viewed the ethnic group positively, but raised opposition among whites who held negative stereotypes of that group.

Boudreau said that for many students, the project was their first brush with research. “The bulk of them were doing this for minimal extra credit. Most of them wanted the research experience, [and] to interact with their professors.”

Zeeve Rose (B.A., political science and philosophy, ’13) was among students inspired to later pursue an honors project: he helped process data collected in the 2011 exit poll. “The lessons I learned working on the project have stuck with me to this day!” said Rose, who now works for a Silicon Valley law firm after graduating from Duke University School of Law.

Kathleen Holder, content strategist in the UC Davis College of Letters and Science