The end of the 2010 election season gave government professor Ron Rapoport the perfect opportunity.
“It was the perfect campaign,” Rapoport said, looking back at data that had been collected through a survey administered in the spring.
The survey, which was sent to the entire student population at the College of William and Mary, asked questions on a variety of topics ranging from political attitudes to student life, as well as Scott Foster’s ’10 campaign for Williamsburg City Council. Rapoport, Dan Maliniak ’06, Kira Allmann ’10 and Patrick Miller ’02 are using the information from the survey to analyze student voting in the May 2010 election, which resulted in Foster winning by twice as many votes as the next closest candidate.
“What I found most interesting was how clear it became that the Scott Foster campaign had just been brilliant, and how their ability to get students out to vote and then for those students to vote for just Scott really clinched the vote for him, together with the pretty strong support he had in the community,” Rapoport said.
According to the data, 71 percent of Democrats and 72 percent of Republicans at the College voted for Foster in May.
“It is the moderates and the independents who turned out at lower levels, and that’s because they tend to be people who are less politically involved,” Rapoport said.
Additionally, there was no significant difference between social classes and whether students lived on or off campus.
The survey was conducted in three waves. The first was sent out in mid-March, followed by a second survey in mid-April and a final survey immediately following Foster’s victory.
“This design let us see change in perceptions of the candidates, attitudes toward local issues, and voting intentions — whereas just taking one survey at one point in time wouldn’t allow this, because there is no over-time comparison available,” Miller, currently a post-doctoral fellow at the Duke Initiative on Survey Methodology, said in an e-mail.
The survey revealed that 98 percent of students voting chose Foster. Additionally, of those who voted for Foster, over 60 percent voted solely for him. Rapoport contrasted that with the turnout for Matt Beato’s ’09 bid for city council in 2008.
“Of those students who voted, they voted as strongly for Beato as students this time did for Scott, but turnout was much lower — in part because of the date of the election,” Rapoport said. “But also, it turns out, that of people who voted for Beato, 60 percent of their votes went for one of his opponents, because there were three candidates in the race and, rather than voting for just Beato, they voted for Beato and often for two candidates besides Beato, so they were in a sense giving a lot of votes to his opponents. Had Beato been able to get students to vote for him alone, he might well have won that election, even with the lower turnout.”
Also, 68 percent of the survey respondents had voted in the 2010 elections, whereas only 34 percent of them had voted in the 2009 elections.
Among respondents, 59 percent said they did not feel close to non-student residents of Williamsburg, while 82 percent did not feel close to local political leaders. Only 15 percent approved of the job that the City Council had been doing.
“To give you an idea of how bad that is, that is the same rating as [Rep.] Nancy Pelosi [D-Ca.] gets in polls,” Rapoport said.
In contrast, the faculty received a favorable rating of 94 percent, and the College administration had an approval rating of 72 percent.
Miller said that the survey “paints a picture of a student body that is alienated from the Williamsburg community.”
According to Miller, fewer than 6 percent of respondents reported being contacted by campaigns of other City Council candidates.
“Williamsburg has about 12,000 residents, including those under 18 and felons who cannot vote,” Miller said. “[The College] has about 6,000 students, all of whom are [of] voting age. If students were a mobilized and cohesive political block, they could literally control Williamsburg politics. That the other campaigns evidently did not bother to court student voters says a lot about the attitudes of local political elites toward students — they likely think that students are not involved in the community and/or they would not support a non-student candidate because relations were that sour.”
The survey revealed that the most important factors for student voters on Election Day were environmental issues, transportation and the establishment of student-oriented businesses. “Having a student on city council” was ranked the least important factor in determining how students voted, according to Miller.
“I just think it’s a textbook campaign that someone running for any office could really learn from,” Rapoport said. “The more I learned about it, looking at the data, the more impressed I was.”