A central question in the study of voting and elections is how voters respond to differences between competing candidates in an election. A persistent problem in large-scale studies of the electorate is that they depend on survey respondents' perceptions and reports of the issue positions and non-policy characteristics of competing candidates to explain their voting choice, candidate evaluations, and related concepts. Such reports are strongly influenced by partisan predispositions and biases, and many respondents lack the information to report on candidate policy positions or characteristics. As a result, analyses of how candidate differences affect respondents' behavior are suspect, and most scholars do not even attempt to estimate the impact of candidate policy differences on voting choice in non-presidential elections. Many studies in this literature reach pessimistic conclusions about the capacity of citizens to measure up to fundamental expectations in classical democratic theory.

This project employs district experts in a national random sample of U.S. House districts to report on the policy positions, electoral prospects, and non-policy characteristics of congressional candidates in the 2010 elections. Expert ratings allow for an assessment of the impact of candidate differences on citizen response, independent of perceptual biases of survey respondents, and without assuming that voters must be aware of and able to report candidate differences in order for those differences to affect their voting choice. The use of district experts to assess candidate characteristics leads to a much more positive view of the citizen in contemporary elections than is true of survey-based studies that rely on respondents' perceptions and reports about the candidates competing for their votes.

The project will increase understanding of the theory and practice of American democracy by providing a new approach to fundamental questions about how candidate differences affect citizen behavior in elections. By integrating expert ratings of candidate differences and other aspects of the political context with data on voters from national surveys and making this data widely available to the scholarly community, this project will direct scholarly attention to the importance of context in explaining citizen behavior.

Project Report

The purpose of this study is to ascertain the extent to which voters respond to candidate choices in congressional elections in ways that reflect their fundamental interests in policy and in selecting the highest quality candidates for office. The major conclusion from the study is that voters are remarkably consistent in responding to the choices they are offered consistent with these interests. This conclusion challenges skeptics in that it prevails despite partisan polarization, significant resource asymmetries between candidates, and relatively low information levels in the electorate about U.S. House candidates. The study sheds new light on the fundamental workings of representative democracy in the US, and provides support for a more optimistic interpretation about how elections work and how well voters are able to pursue their fundamental intrests. The major outcomes from the study are: Academic publications reporting on the results from the study, including a book still in progress at the time of this report, and a number of papers published or in progress. Data sets that result from the study. These data sets include surveys of constituents in the study's sample districts; and detailed information about the districts and the candidates who ran in the 2010 elections, most of which result from reports by panels of "district experts" who reported on the issue stands and qualities, skills, and traits of the opposing candidates in each district. The advantage of using district experts to measure the issue positions and traits and skills of contending candidates is that this approach produces exactly comparable information about each candidate across a large number of district elections. A website that provides access to reports about the study, including academic publications and reports to respondents; and that makes available to other scholars and interested parties the data sets that resulted from the study: http://electionstudy.ucdavis.edu/.

National Science Foundation (NSF)
Division of Social and Economic Sciences (SES)
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Brian D. Humes
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University of California Davis
United States
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