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Wednesday, November 4, 2009
If Exit Polls Were Fishes

American Fork's election results are clear. The motives, concerns, and issues behind them are not clear at all.

In local elections, especially in small cities and towns, a candidate has to rely heavily on guesswork and gut instinct in judging where the voters are on particular issues, which issues move them most, and which characteristics of individual candidates attract and repel them. There's no established history of serious opinion polling in local races in American Fork, for example, so we're not sure what to expect on Election Day. When we know the results, we still can only guess why they are what they are, because there's no exit polling, either. I'm not saying there should be such polling; these things cost serious money, when done right.

Admittedly, the candidates and other observers have a lot of anecdotal data and can sense some trends, but they're very hard to measure without scientific sampling, careful questioning, and good analysis.

Last night and this morning, a number of people asked me why the incumbent city councilors won in American Fork, while the incumbent mayor lost (like lots of other Utah County mayors). They asked why the margin in the mayoral race was so large, about 61 to 39 percent, James Hadfield over Heber Thompson. I can only guess, and I'm reluctant to do very much of that guessing here.

I do think that the challenger in the mayoral races was a lot stronger, with broader community ties and a more aggressive and effective campaign, than the challengers in the city council race. And I'm aware of some voter discontent on issues that residents are inclined (sometimes rightly, sometimes wrongly) to pin on the current mayor. I'd love to have some exit polling data as to what voters liked and disliked about each candidate, and which of those things pushed their votes one way or another. I'd like to have asked a large sample of voters whether they would have preferred to vote for strong, credible challengers instead of incumbents in the city council race, had there been any of the former.

If I had time and money, and if voters had considerable patience, I would love to have done some exit polling on the mayoral race especially. I'm not experienced at writing exit polls, but, more or less of the top of my head, I'm thinking that voter responses to the following questionnaire might have been illuminating.

For which American Fork mayoral candidate did you vote?

  • James Hadfield
  • Heber Thompson
  • write-in
  • none

For each item below, indicate whether the item moved you strongly toward a vote for James Hadfield, strongly toward voting for Heber Thompson, slightly toward Hadfield, slightly toward Thompson, or didn't move you. Add a brief, written explanation where you think it is appropriate.

  • Personal experience working with Mayor Thompson at the City.
  • Personal experience working with Mr. Hadfield at the City.
  • Someone else's experience working with Mayor Thompson at the City.
  • Someone else's experience working with Mr. Hadfield at the City.
  • Personal contact with Mayor Thompson during the campaign.
  • Personal contact with Mr. Hadfield during the campaign.
  • Experience with Mayor Thompson outside his role at the City.
  • Experience with Mr. Hadfield outside his role at the City.
  • General dislike for incumbents.
  • A belief that elected officials should serve only a single term.
  • Someone else's recommendation.
  • The 2008 property tax increase.
  • The five bond issue proposals that failed in 2008.
  • The quality or tone of communications from the City or from the Mayor directly.
  • Neglected road maintenance.
  • The pressurized irrigation project.
  • Issues involving the American Fork Police Department or Fire Department.
  • The City has been running without a professional city administrator.
  • One or more ads, flyers, or mailers
  • Mayor Thompson's automated phone calls just before the election.
  • Residential water rates.
  • Commercial water rates.
  • Perceived corruption or special interest influence at the City.
  • Negotiations American Fork has conducted with other governments.
  • American Fork's new opt-out recycling program.
  • Road conditions and maintenance.
  • A zoning or development issue.
  • The candidates' educational background.
  • The candidates' professional background.
  • Snow removal.
  • Nuisance abatement.
  • Another issue in your city or your neighborhood.
  • Something else entirely.
  • Random selection.

See why this is difficult? I just rattled off 34 factors which could have determined or at least influenced someone's vote in the mayoral election. I heard at least 30 of these from voters during the campaign, and I could probably have listed another 20 if I'd thought about it for 10 or 15 more minutes. Some of these things pushed different voters in opposite directions. Some of them irritated people who nonetheless ignored their irritation and voted for a given candidate for other reasons. Without good data on a good sample of voters, it's hard to know which issues influenced how many voters, and to what extent.

Of course, even with good exit polling, we wouldn't be completely certain that voters explained their thinking candidly, or even that they are fully aware of the various influences on their vote.

I think the thing to say at this point is, politics is as much an art as a science, if not more so. The election results are what they are, but the reasons behind them are rarely perfectly clear -- or clear at all, for that matter.

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