Polls and voting behavior: the impact of polling information on candidate preference, turnout, and strategic voting

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Giammo, Joseph Donald

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Public opinion polls have become an integral part of the coverage of presidential elections. The story of the campaign is often told through the lens of the horse-race; candidates are leading or trailing, gaining or losing ground in their efforts to capture the White House. These polls, which provides important information to the public about the views of their fellow citizens, may also serve to shape the opinions and actions of that public, particularly in determining which candidate to support, whether or not to show up on Election Day, and whether to vote sincerely or strategically. Using both an analysis of a well-established national survey over the past ten elections and the results of a set of experiments done at the University of Texas, this study examines the effects of polling information on those decisions, keeping in mind that not all individuals will to react to the same information in the same way. The results of this study indicate that while polls do have an impact on the opinions and behaviors of those exposed to them, the effects themselves are minimal, and tend to largely reinforce existing predispositions. Those who have already chosen a candidate to support in an election tend to use the poll results to reinforce those preferences. Potential voters who are exposed to information suggesting a close election are more likely to participate, but only marginally so. Individuals who are considering whether or not to vote for a third party candidate do react to the strength of that candidate in the polls, but seem unimpressed by the strategic situation. Overall, this study indicates that the strong emphasis by the media on the relative popularity of the candidates does not seem to make a significant difference in the actions of individuals, and thus in the results of presidential elections.