After watching in frustration as the nation's press corps has written the history of one presidential election after another, UCLA political scientist Lynn Vavreck finally decided something had to give.
"It takes academics three years to analyze all the data and figure out what really happened in a campaign, and that is almost always in contrast to what has already been written into the record by journalists," she said. "But by that point, nobody cares anymore."
So she and research partner John Sides are foregoing the stately pace of scholarly journals — at least during the 2012 election.
"With technology being what it is, academics can survey people much more quickly than has been possible in the past, and we can put our assessments out there at the same time as journalists," she said.
To that end, Vavreck, an associate professor of political science and communication studies at UCLA, and Sides, an associate professor of political science at George Washington University, will be surveying 1,000 people a week beginning Jan. 3 and ending on Election Day in 2012.
They will post findings from DATA POINTS 2012, as they're calling their in-depth survey, on two blogs: The Monkey Cage and Model Politics.
In addition, findings by Vavreck and Sides, ultimately destined for a book on the campaign, will be released by Princeton University Press in three e-chapters throughout the 2012 campaign cycle — after the primaries in early spring, after the nominating conventions for both political parties in the summer, and immediately following the election in November. And those results will serve as the building blocks for a full-blown analysis of the campaign, scheduled for publication by Princeton University Press in 2013.
For their research, Vavreck and Sides will be surveying a total of 45,000 voters throughout the campaign. They also plan to travel with the campaigns. As part of the endeavor, Vavreck will be on the ground at the Iowa caucus on Jan. 3 and the New Hampshire primary on Jan. 12.
"Nothing like this has ever been done before in academia," Vavreck said. "The combination of getting out into the field with the candidates and analyzing survey data in real time is truly a first."
Vavreck is the co-founder of one of the first Internet presidential polling projects, the Cooperative Campaign Analysis Project. She also is the author of the definitive study of the effect the economy has on the prospects of presidential candidates, "The Message Matters: The Economy and Presidential Campaigns" (Princeton University Press, 2009).
Sides is a founding contributor of The Monkey Cage, which is dedicated to bringing academic research to bear on mainstream coverage of politics. Together, Vavreck and Sides have published more than 40 scholarly articles and three books on campaigns and elections.
Among attitudes to be explored by DATA POINTS 2012 are the extent to which the nation is divided on issues and values and the extent to which the presidential campaign aggravates or relieves these tensions. The survey project will also measure any effect of the nation's lingering economic woes on the campaign.
"The goal is to have political scientists enter the conversation with journalists about what is actually driving public opinion and people's voting patterns, as it is happening," Vavreck said. "We want our voices to be a part of historical record on what happened in 2012 presidential election."
(To see more of Vavreck's video interview on the 2012 election, the economy and the politics of race, visit http://bit.ly/rqADrv.)