Aim of the Voter Choice Project
The aim of the Voter Choice Project is to explore why Australians vote the way they do, with the hope of making election campaigns work better for voters. This involves finding out what personal, media or campaign influences voters respond to in deciding who to vote for, and when in the campaign cycle they make their vote decision.
There is a significant body of academic research and polling done on ‘who’ votes for which Australian political parties, their social and demographic characteristics, and their attitudes to the dominant political issues. However, the deeper question of ‘why’ people vote for a particular party or candidate, and ‘how’ or ‘when’ they came to that decision, is not well researched in Australia. This project is seeking to answer some of the ‘why’, ‘how’ and ‘when’ of Australian voter decision.
In 1940, a team of researchers at Columbia’s Office of Radio Research, headed by Paul Lazarsfeld, conducted one of the first major studies in voter behaviour in Erie County, Ohio. Published as The People’s Choice (Lazarsfeld, Berelson & Gaudet 1968 ), it dispelled a number of myths about why people vote the way they do, including discovering that swinging voters were largely apathetic and disinterested (rather than highly interested and intelligent, as was believed by political operatives at the time), that media had a very limited effect on influencing people’s votes, and that personal connections were the most influential force.
A second study on the 1948 Presidential election in Elmira, New York, confirmed and deepened the understanding of voting as an inescapably social act (Berelson, Lazarsfeld & McPhee 1954). Over the years the Columbia theories have both been supported and challenged by numerous studies; however, their methodology, a multi-wave panel that tracks each individual’s vote decision process for a number of months in the lead up to the election, is used all over the world. To date, it has never been used in an Australian study. The Voter Choice Project is based on the Columbia studies and will be the first multi-wave panel study of voter behaviour in Australia.
From the results it is hoped we will come to understand the motivations of Australian voters in far greater depth and detail than ever before, learn when people are making their voting decisions, and who or what is influential in the public or private sphere in the formation of those decisions. The larger goal is to improve political campaigning, political news coverage, and political communication generally, to something that voters find worthwhile and useful.
The results can also be used in non-political ways by other organisations trying to reach people making complex social decisions, such as trying to get people to make healthier eating choices, waste less, or choose to support a particular social cause or idea.