The upcoming Republican Iowa Caucus in January 2024 holds special interest for four undergraduate political science majors in Iowa State’s College of Liberal Arts and Sciences. The student team is digging into the thoughts and preferences of likely Iowa caucus-goers, and they are ecstatic about the unique experiential-learning opportunity.
Eleanor Chalstrom (’24 political science, journalism and mass communication), Dylan Miller (’24 political science), Hailey Stone (’24 political science, Spanish), and Jonathan Zugay (’24 political science) are working with David Peterson, Lucken Professor of Political Science, to organize, develop, and analyze results from the Iowa State University/Civiqs Poll.
The poll is a five-part, monthly study that surveys and tracks the shifting perspectives of more than 1,000 registered Republican voters leading up to the Iowa caucuses. The poll’s first results were published in September and monthly updates are planned through January.
Peterson is no stranger to the Iowa caucuses. He has been involved with caucus polling in the political science department since 2012. In 2020, he stepped up to supervise the poll when Iowa State began working with Civiqs, a leading commercial survey firm. But this election cycle marks the first time he tapped undergraduate students to assist him with the project.
“These four are amazing students. They took our undergraduate research methods class from me, and excelled in it,” Peterson said. “At the end of the class, all of them wanted to continue using these tools and I thought this would be a good opportunity for them.”
The students are tasked with creating questions, attempting to gauge voters’ current opinions of the 2024 Republican presidential candidates. For example, Chalstrom has developed questions to uncover voters’ emotional reactions to the candidates. Stone’s questions center around why some people are no longer supporting Donald Trump. Miller seeks to understand why some people choose to participate in the political process while others do not. Zugay is interested in the topics that both unite and divide voters within the Republican Party.
Coming up with objective, non-leading questions for the poll’s surveys has proved more difficult than the students anticipated.
“You have an idea of what you want to figure out, but people don’t always tell the truth in surveys, and you don’t want to prompt people’s answers,” Stone said. “Taking your research question and figuring out how to get real, legitimate answers from people has been challenging.”
The students are also responsible for tracking the poll’s data through a coding software called R, a robust yet sometimes confusing computer language. All the students studied R in the required research methods class with Peterson. For some, R has been the biggest hurdle of the project. But Zugay enjoys the challenges that R presents, and he is excited to learn more.
“I thought R was a fun software, even though it’s difficult to use,” Zugay said. “I went to David Peterson and was like, ‘Hey, do you have any more classes on this? This is super fun.’”
Having an impact
The students are acutely aware of the importance of their work. They understand they are part of something special that could possibly impact the political arena for years to come.
“The work we’re doing for the College of LAS is actually quite robust, and I believe that if the political science department can continue focusing on projects like these for students like us, they have a real shot at becoming a significant force when it comes to political analyses in Iowa,” Miller said. “Imagine Iowa State/Civiqs right there next to CBS and other polling groups in 2028 as the next presidential election rears its head.”
Recently, Stone was shocked to hear the Iowa State/Civiqs poll mentioned on a mainstream podcast, emphasizing for her the potential reach of their work.
“I was listening to a podcast where they mentioned our Iowa State poll, and I was freaking out,” Stone said. “It was like a 5-second mention, but it was that rush that we’re doing stuff that other political scientists care about. It’s really cool to feel like I’m part of the political science field.”
Once the Iowa caucuses conclude in January, the students will work with Peterson to compile their findings and publish them in a high-profile political science journal, a rare opportunity for undergraduate students.
“This is the kind of high-impact research experience that ISU emphasizes for our students,” Peterson said. “Not only are they gaining the skills of writing and working with data, but they will have a publication that they can point to when they are applying for jobs or graduate school in the future.”
As political science majors, it’s no surprise each of the students has had an innate interest in politics since they were young. Participation in the caucus poll project has solidified career aspirations for some, but exposed different options for others.
“Political science isn’t just a degree you can use to get to law school, you can do more,” Chalstrom said. “I think that’s been the biggest eye-opener. I can see myself applying to grad school for something similar or along the lines of what we’re doing here.”
Miller and Stone both intend to pursue law degrees following graduation from Iowa State. Miller will likely practice law, with his sights set on a possible future political career. Stone does not intend to practice law, but instead explore the research side of political science.
Zugay wants to attend graduate school at Iowa State and study political science and cybersecurity, ultimately developing future technology policy.
“That’s a niche I want to get into. Dr. Peterson, the research methods course, and this study have further just nailed it into my head that this is what I want to do,” Zugay said.
With the success of the students’ work so far, Peterson will continue to work with undergraduate students on the Iowa State/Civiqs caucus poll in the future.
“I will absolutely continue to work with undergrads. It is probably my favorite part of this job,” Peterson said. “When I was an undergrad, one specific professor took me under his wing and changed my life. I try to do that now, and it is the most rewarding part of being a professor at a place like Iowa State. Seeing students grow and get excited about their own ideas is unlike anything else.”