UT Dallas Faculty Oversee Longtime UK Voting Study
May 4, 2010
With a general election scheduled for Thursday, the UT Dallas researchers overseeing the long-running British Election Study (BES) are gearing up for a busy week.
Dr. Harold Clarke, the Ashbel Smith professor of political science in the School of Economic, Political and Policy Sciences, and Dr. Marianne Stewart, professor of political science, are co-principal investigators for the study, which began in 1964 and is one of the world’s oldest continuous political research projects. The other two co-investigators are Drs. David Sanders and Paul Whiteley of the University of Essex in England.
The study was conducted for every general election in Britain since 1964. It was developed to describe and explain why people vote as they do, what issues and events affect election outcomes and what consequences result from elections, Clarke said. He and Stewart helped oversee the study for the two previous general elections in 2001 and 2005.
The U.K. government, through its Economic and Social Research Council, funds the research.
“During elections, we can learn a great deal about why people think the way they do and why they vote in certain ways,” Clarke said. “We expect to come up with some interesting findings as a result of this election.”
Prime Minister Gordon Brown called for a national election to take place May 6. The Labour Party, which has long controlled the government, is being challenged by the Conservative Party and other smaller groups.
Stewart said the British Election Study increasingly is regarded as one of the world’s most important and innovative political research projects. She expects this year’s election to focus heavily on the economy, which has been hard hit by a recession.
This year’s study is making broader use of internet technology, said Clarke, who also teaches at the University of Essex every summer. The study organizers already contacted nearly 17,000 voters via the Internet for their pre-campaign opinions. About 550 randomly selected voters then will be contacted every day leading up to the election for their changing opinions regarding candidates, issues and media coverage. Another follow-up survey will be done right after the election to see how these people voted.
While researchers used the Internet in previous studies, this year’s electronic outreach is much wider. The study also will involve face-to-face national surveys of another 3,000 Britons.
“We’ve found that people are actually more honest when they’re answering a survey via the Internet rather than having to answer questions from some stranger sitting in their living room,” Clarke said, who first conducted a national election study in Canada during the 1970s. He said people’s attitudes and patterns of behavior appear remarkably similar across the decades and when comparing different countries, he said.
The dynamics of changing public opinions are fascinating to Stewart. “People form attitudes about politicians and issues based on events and other influences, but changes in public attitudes also influence public policy in a major way,” she said.
This year’s study will look closely at party choice, turnout and political participation, campaign dynamics and election outcomes.
“What is sometimes surprising is which issues are and aren’t important to voters everywhere,” Clarke said. “Issues that get a lot of attention from the media, such as reproductive rights or same-sex marriage, don’t usually affect how most people vote. But issues such as the economy are almost always important. Even though everyone wants the same thing, a better economy, voters have to choose the person they think is most likely to do the right thing.”
The findings from the BES are posted on the researchers’ web site soon after they’re analyzed. Members of the media and political strategists often consult the data for insight into voters’ motivations, Clarke said. He and his colleagues also use the information to study long-term election and voting patterns, which they address in journal articles, books, and other scholarly publications.