Conducting Your Own Research

One way of studying voting behavior might be to generate a bunch of tables that could be constructed from these data and see what looked interesting. Such a strategy is neither practical nor useful. Tables by themselves tell you very little. They have to be interpreted and explained. This interpretation usually is done in terms of some theory or generalization about how people behave.

To make your research effort more meaningful, and to avoid wasted effort, you need to carefully frame the question you are studying and to be sure that you have some sound reason for studying it. That reason usually is directly related to some theoretical concepts or ideas that you have learned from the work of others. The general rule is to apply what you already know to discover something new.

It is important to explicate why you are looking at a particular set of relationships, because that justification becomes part of the explanation of what the contingency tables tell us. As we have said earlier, political scientists are far more interested in the relationship among variables than they are in the actual percentages of some group that voted one way or another. Relationships help to explain behavior. We especially want to know why the variables are related the way that they are. We also want to know why two variables that some theory predicts should be related might wind up not to be related when we look at the data. Often, the lack of a finding or the fact that two variables are unrelated is just as important as finding that two variables are strongly related, but only when there is a pre-existing theory or hypothesis that predicts that the two variables should be related.

Most research involves hypothesis testing. You should start from a theory developed by reading other people's work, then generate hypotheses from that theory, and then test those hypotheses by comparing your predicted relationships to those resulting from your data analysis. If the data bear out your hypotheses, you can claim some support for the theory; if the data do not support your hypotheses, you conclude that the theory is not supported. In either event, the conclusions are valuable.

Using what you already know about voting behavior, as well as your intuition, you should be able to design a research project that examines some aspect of voting behavior or public opinion. Specifically, you should:

  1. Formulate research questions about the relationships among a set of variables.

  2. Justify the selection of variables and the expectations you have about the connection between the variables.

  3. Test your ideas by obtaining the necessary tables.

  4. Carefully interpret the tables and write up your conclusions.

Although the exercises focused on one dependent variable — who people vote for — there are other possible dependent variables. For example, one might be interested in issue differences between men and women, or in why people think one candidate for office is honest and another one is not, or in what attributes voters consider when they report feeling "warm" or "cool" towards a candidate for office on a feeling thermometer. The data set contains a wealth of variables that can be considered as either dependent or independent variables according to the type of research project you are pursuing.

Possible Research Topics

  1. The impact of perceptions of candidate character traits on presidential voting: Exercise 9 examined the relationships between perceptions of the leadership abilities of the presidential candidates and voting behavior. There are other candidate character traits that voters may find relevant, and this dataset contains items on a number of such characteristics. One possible research topic is the effect that these assessments of candidate character traits have on voting. Overall, how did the voters assess the personal characteristics of the two candidates? Did one candidate have an overall advantage when it came to these perceptions? Are some assessments more strongly related than others to the vote? Can we be confident that these assessments have a direct effect on voting, as opposed to just being associated with vote choice? What voter characteristics influence how the voters assess the personal qualities of the candidates?

  2. The impact of economic evaluations and attitudes on presidential voting. Exercise 5 examined the effect of economic evaluations and attitudes on presidential vote choice. This topic could be explored in more depth. How are evaluations of personal financial situation, perceptions of the national economy, and evaluations of the president's handling of the economy related to each other and to the vote? What is the causal order among these variables (i.e., what affects what)? What voter characteristics affect economic evaluations and attitudes?

  3. The impact of specific policy issues on presidential voting. The effect that attitudes on Obamacare had on the vote are examined in Exercise 4. Exercises 7 and 8 analyzed the effect of attitudes on Medicare and abortion on the vote. Other specific policy issues also could be examined, including attitudes on other moral issues, such as gay rights, or attitudes on economic or social welfare issues. Relevant questions that you could investigate include whether attitudes on the issue truly affected the vote, what types of people were more likely to vote on the basis of the issue, how people perceived differences between the candidates on the issue, and how attitudes on the issue were related to other voter attitudes or characteristics.

  4. The influence of demographic or social characteristics on presidential voting. Exercises 2 and 10 examined the relationship between demographic or social characteristics and the vote. The impact on the vote of various social and demographic characteristics could be examined in more depth. Which characteristics are most strongly related to the vote? Why are characteristics such as race, gender, income, or religion related to how people vote?