An exit poll of Hidalgo County voters in the Fall 2012 election provided a unique experiential learning opportunity for students at The University of Texas-Pan American and some valuable insight into the issues of interest and concern to the region's residents.
"The exit poll allowed us to look at voters in Hidalgo County and understand their preferences and voting patterns. We also included other questions that allowed researchers and students alike to explore political issues that are of local interest that might not receive mass media coverage," said Dr. Jessica Lavariega Monforti, assistant dean of the College of Social and Behavioral Sciences and associate professor of political science, who is also a senior faculty research associate at the center.
The demographics of the respondents in the survey generally reflect the demographics of the population across gender, ethnicity, native born status, education and age. The survey was done in both English and Spanish.
While the polling results indicated respondents supported Democratic candidates across the board - 72.5 percent for Obama - they also showed there is ideological diversity among Hidalgo County residents, Lavariega Monforti said.
"It is not this homogenous group of people, where you could have one really simple, easy message that is going to convince people to come out and vote for you. You really need to understand the population and speak to them as intelligent consumers of political information," she said.
Voting patterns indicated by the poll results show 63.3 percent of respondents made their vote choice before September and about 46 percent of respondents voted a straight-party ticket and for half or more of the positions on the ballot. The issue of the economy and jobs ranked as the most important one locally (44.2%) and nationally (66.1%). However respondents ranked border security related to drug trafficking and violence and immigration second and third.
While Hidalgo County aligned with the rest of the country on the candidate elected and the number one issue, the results show people are very concerned with what is going on locally but not feeling like they are really being paid much attention to regarding violence, immigration, education and healthcare, Lavariega Monforti said.
"This should be a big flashing warning sign for politicians and people working in these areas," she said.
Lavariega Monforti said one of the most surprising results was that seven out of 10 of the respondents said that they had been personally impacted by the violence in Mexico, with nearly 30 percent of those polled also indicating poor or no coverage of the U.S.-Mexico border by the mass media.
"We knew it (the numbers impacted) would be high, but we didn't think it would be that high. There were a lot of comments from people saying that more people have died in Mexico in the last five years than have died in Iraq and Afghanistan," she said. "Lots of people talked about not being able to go home and visit for years now and about family members being kidnapped or killed and that no one is paying attention to that."
"People feel like they don't have to choose. Fifty-eight percent of the respondents said they very strongly identify as either Hispanic or Latino, at the same time that 67 percent said they feel very strongly American," she said.
For students, the exit polling project provided a valuable hands-on experience that engaged the students in a way that is often only reserved for graduate students. It also exposed students to the survey process and research in general.
"They go through the entire process from understanding ethics about human subjects, developing survey instruments, all the way through to data analysis and a final paper they were required to prepare. They did the surveying, interviewing, and the data entry. Students were involved in every part of the project," Lavariega Monforti said.
Karen Monsivais, a graduate student in clinical psychology, said the project allowed her to learn how to properly collect, input and analyze data as well as to be more aware of how Valley residents feel on certain issues.
"This experience has given me greater insight into what the whole research process entails," said Monsivais, who aspires to be a licensed professional counselor (LPC). "Reading about this is one thing, doing the hands on is much more rewarding."
She said as more people become aware of the center's research, especially on local issues, she hopes it will perhaps lead to some policy changes.
"The center provides an opportunity to back up claims with actual numbers. There is a lot of potential for growth there," she said.
Created in 1998, the center aims to provide decision makers and scholars with the best possible information based on systematic and scientific research methodologies to develop solutions to problems they confront. Its professional services include survey and market research, evaluations, satisfaction surveys, focus groups, and GIS mapping.
"We can now show on a map graphically vote change over time, voter turnout change over time, or areas impacted by a change of service," Lavariega Monforti said. " The capabilities we have now are amazing."
The center will tentatively move in Spring 2013 to an area being renovated on the first floor of the Social and Behavioral Sciences Building. A road show is also being planned to area chambers of commerce, municipalities, and other locations to disseminate information on the center's services. The staff also hopes to forge relationships and develop contracts with national polling firms.
"We want people to know that we can do these things. We have expertise that most people don't have," Lavariega Monforti said. "At the same time we want to train our students so that they will replicate that expertise out in the community."