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Researchers Find Political Experts Ahead of the Polls

Sloane Markley, a senior, found her passion for politics, government, history and law as a first-year student. In her first semester, she joined The College Reporter student newspaper, where she is now co-editor, and decided on a government major and women's and gender studies minor.

"I'm interested in how people interact with their government," Markley said.

As a Hackman scholar this summer, Markley evaluated data designed to determine the effectiveness of campaigns during a presidential election by taking the opinion of experts in the field of political science and plotting it against the data in pre-election polls of voters. 

Franklin and Marshall-sponsored Hackman scholars participate in faculty-mentored projects, and Markley worked with Associate Professor of Government Stephen Medvic. During the 2012 presidential campaign, Medvic emailed more than 50 political scientists each week and asked this question: "Who ran the better campaign over the last week: Barack Obama, Mitt Romney, or was it a draw?"

  • Sloane Markley Hackman Scholar
  • Franklin & Marshall senior Sloane Markley worked with Government Professor Stephen Medvic this summer on research from the 2012 presidential election to determine how effective campaigns are in persuading voters. (Photo by Melissa Hess) 

The responses from the political scientists were compared to the series of national polls that came out the following week, which were provided on Real Clear Politics, a nonpartisan website. Markley and Medvic looked for a correlation between what polls showed voters thought of the campaigns on a given week and what academic experts observed.

"Professor Medvic wanted to get a real-time measure as to how effective those campaigns were," Markley said. "It was a more predictive rather than reactive measure."

They found the experts consistently ahead of the polls on whether the candidates' campaigns were, in a given week, winning, losing or about even in voter support. "What it says is the experts are picking up on what the candidates are doing before the polls do," Markley said.

Medvic said the data showed that political experts responded to the question based on their professional observation, not what they had read in a public opinion poll.

"If you're really asking for their professional opinion as to what happened in a campaign, it looks like they can do that objectively," Medvic said. "I was happy to find that the experts' opinions didn't simply reflect the candidates' standing in the polls at that point in time."

  • Stephen Medvic Research Presidential Elections
  • F&M Associate Professor of Government Stephen Medvic's research of the 2012 presidential elections found that candidates can persuade certain independent voters to support them. (Photo by Melissa Hess)

He said the data also showed that candidates can persuade certain independent voters to support them.

However, debates notwithstanding, the research data cannot pinpoint what exactly candidates or campaigns do that moves voters in their direction. "It's been very hard to isolate the political effect of the campaigns," Medvic said. That answer may come with further research on future campaigns, Markley said.

"We're still trying to find an empirical formula as to what is an important campaign event," she said.

With this initial research, Medvic wants to build a database by conducting the same surveys on presidential elections over at least the next 40 years. This preliminary data appears to be a good first measure on the effectiveness of campaigns.

"I think it gives us a better understanding of what candidates can and cannot do in campaigns that are effective," said Markley, who also came to understand something else. "I realized I really like research."