Students flag down voters in exit polls

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Daniel Doherty randomly selected students in his class to wear flag apparel. JAMIE HOLT / THE FLAT HAT

Students at the College of William and Mary participated in the midterm election Tuesday, Nov. 6 in more ways than simply voting. Every year, students in government professor Daniel Doherty’s Political Polling and Survey Analysis class have the unique experience of conducting an exit poll after voters leave the voting booth.

With this particular exit poll, Doherty made a concerted effort to promote methods of achieving a representative sample.

“There’s a common problem of trying to get a representative sample: certain people are more willing to do exit polls than others.”

“There’s a common problem of trying to get a representative sample: certain people are more willing to do exit polls than others,” Doherty said. “In fact, we have people who want to do the exit poll, and we have to tell them no so we can get a representative sample.”

To tackle this problem, this year, Doherty conducted this experiment in a unique manner. He took the idea from one of his former students, David King ’19, and decided to have certain groups of students conducting the exit polls wear patriotic American flag hats and shirts while others wore more nondescript clothing.

“In today’s political climate, those who are less likely to do exit polls are often people more likely to be affiliated with [U.S. President Donald] Trump,” Doherty said. “And Trump expresses a bit of disdain or at least [is] not a big fan of the press, and most people associate exit polls and polling in general with the press. So in order to try and minimize that problem, in order to try and make those people more willing to participate in our exit polls, we conducted an experiment in which half of the students were randomly assigned to wear flag attire.”

Doherty assigned students in groups of two to six different voting precincts between the hours of 6 a.m. and 6 p.m.  — two in Williamsburg and four in James City County. Selecting every third person, students asked voters to fill out a questionnaire. Selected voters shared information about who they voted for in the House of Representatives and Senate races as well as who they voted for in the 2016 general election.

“We tried to keep the surveys completely anonymous, so we gave people the survey and stepped away and put it in a folder once they were done so they wouldn’t feel it was possibly biased,” Patrick Salsburg ’21, one of the students conducting exit polls, said.

While conducting their polls, there was a noticeable difference in partisanship between voting precincts. Williamsburg precincts leaned more Democratic while precincts in James City County were more Republican. According to Doherty, students wearing American flag clothing did in fact attract more Republican voters.

“The flag surveyors definitely got more Trump supporters, more conservatives, Republicans,” Doherty said. “… They seemed more willing to say ‘yes’ to someone wearing flag attire.”

While the sample size of the data did not achieve statistical significance, Doherty said that the data of around 460 voters suggested a positive correlation between wearing patriotic clothing and voters agreeing to take part in the survey. In James City County, there was a 10 percent increase in responses, from 34.4 percent to 43.1 percent, when the student conducting the poll was dressed in flag attire.

The exit poll found 70.1 percent of voters voted for Sen. Tim Kaine while 26 percent of voters voted for Corey Stewart in the Senate race. 67.1 percent of voters voted for Democratic candidate Elaine Luria in the House race while 32.3 percent voted for the Republican candidate Rep. Scott Taylor. In the 2016 race, the class’s exit poll data showed 26.6 percent voted for Trump, 57.2 percent voted for Hillary Clinton and 10.4 percent of voters did not vote at all.

Students who conducted the polls reported that voter response was mixed. Some voters accused students of collaboration with “fake news media,” while others simply wanted to talk.

“I might have had a few negative responses,” Salsburg, one of the surveyors clad in American-flag attire, said. “No one said anything negative to me in rejecting the survey request. One girl gave me the middle finger, and a bunch of people aggressively said ‘no.’”

Students who participated in conducting the exit polls said they thought the experiment was a unique way to engage with the voting process.

“I was kind of surprised by some of the people’s votes because I just didn’t know who people had voted for.”

“I was kind of surprised by some of the people’s votes because I just didn’t know who people had voted for,” Salsburg said.

Other students described the exit poll experience as providing a window into the core of the democratic process.

“It was great,” Brian Connolly ’19 said. “It sounds so corny, but I don’t know. This is the corny part, [but] it’s a very beautiful process. … watching people vote for the first time or they are 85, ready to get up and go vote.”