A Laboratory for the Social Sciences: The American Panel Survey


What does the average American voter really think about the 2016 presidential candidates? How much do those beliefs depend on things like income, education level, or even personality? With the American Panel Survey (or TAPS), social scientists have a powerful tool to explore questions about human attitudes and behaviors over time. This year, researchers are using TAPS to learn about why voters choose certain candidates over others, and when and why they sometimes change their minds. Steven Smith, the director of TAPS, explains how the survey works and why it's such an important asset for social scientists. 



Claire Navarro (host): Thanks for listening to Hold that Thought! I’m Claire Navarro. Over the course of the 2016 election, it’s been fascinating to think about who is voting for which candidate and why. News organizations ask voters this kind of question all the time. Who are you voting for? What do you like about him or her? But for the most part, these kinds of questions only record a snapshot in time. What if you could go back to that same voter and ask again? Would they have the same answer? What about if you could ask every month, over and over again? And, while we’re imagining, what if you could go back months before the election and ask these people other questions – about the government, about the economy, even about their personality traits and what’s going on in their lives. Think what you could learn. Well, the American Panel Survey, better known as TAPS, does just that.   

Steven Smith (guest): In fact next month will be our 58th wave, in which we've gone back to pretty much the same people, eight or nine hundred of which have done most of those 58 surveys.

CN: Steven Smith directs the American Panel Survey, and also the Weidenbaum Center on the Economy, Government, and Public Policy, here at Washington University in St. Louis. TAPS started in 2011, and it pulls information from around 2,000 people. In addition to the 900 or so who have done all the surveys, around 1,000 have been added over the years as people have dropped out.

SS: They get an email at the beginning of a month indicating that the new survey is available online. If they don't respond right away, then they get a few prompts. Eventually you might even get a phone call from us saying, "You know, we noticed you haven't completed the survey. Can you please do it in the next few days?"

CN: So who are these people being contacted every month? With some online surveys, participants have to sign up to participate.

SS: They've maybe seen an ad, and then they clicked on the link and they've joined the panel. There's reason to worry that people who volunteer for such torture must be a breed apart and can't possibly be representative of all Americans. Well, we did not do it that way. We actually created a random sample of adult Americans and then approached them and recruited them. So ours is a national probability sample.

CN: That means that the group includes people of different ages, backgrounds, races, geographic areas, and so on. Some people in the panel are Internet savvy; others are not. Maybe they’re older and aren’t used to computers, or maybe they can’t afford Internet access. With TAPS, not a problem.

SS: We pay for 10 or 15 percent of our respondents to go online at our expense. We actually provide them an inexpensive laptop and an Internet service provider at our expense to get them online.

CN: So why go to all this work and expense? According to Smith, a panel survey like TAPS has two main advantages.

SS: One is that you just simply go back to the same respondents over and over again, and so you gather a depth of information about those respondents that you could never do in a single shot survey.

CN: Think about it. The survey takes just about 20 minutes to complete. But take those 20 minutes x 2000 people x 58 surveys, with more surveys being completed every month. That’s a lot of information. And that’s not all.

SS: The second advantage of a panel, and that's its largest advantage, is that you can observe changes in attitude and behavior over time. That's important in the study of human behavior.

CN: Smith describes TAPS as a laboratory for social scientists. In a chemistry lab, different chemists can come in and use the instruments to do experiments and look into different questions. With TAPS, social scientists can do the same kind of thing by asking the participants to answer different questions that are relevant to their research. The questions cover a wide range of topics, but some things get covered every month.

SS: The questions on TAPS come in several different flavors. One set is a set of questions that are asked every month. These are questions about attitudes toward major political actors and the state of the economy. We asked those over and over again because we know that they capture fundamental attitudes and perceptions of the economic and political world.

CN: Additional questions might relate to a specific research project, or, in a year like 2016, to important current events. Say, a presidential election.

SS: In an election year, we do shape the agenda of TAPS in important ways. The panel design guides what kinds of questions we ask about campaigns.

CN: In other words, this isn’t the kind of snapshot poll you’re used to seeing covered in the news. With panel data, Smith and his colleagues can see the long view of how voters think and behave. 

SS: Starting last August, we measured attitudes toward the presidential candidates on a monthly basis so we can track the flow over time and how attitudes toward all the major candidates evolved over time. Then when a candidate dropped out where their supporters went - we can tell you where they went.

CN: For example, remember way back to May, when Ohio governor John Kasich formally dropped out of the presidential race.

SS: We can show you that a disproportionate number of the Kasich supporters, when it came down to Kasich and Cruz and Trump, are still undecided about what they want to do in November. The Cruz supporters on the other hand did go for Trump. There's only about 20 percent of Cruz supporters who say they're not quite sure what they're going to do. And so it's a bit of a surprise to people. But the Cruz supporters are strongly anti-Clinton and now, more or less, pro-Trump. Well, you need the panel data in order to show that. And we have it.

CN: I talked with Smith in late August, so that bit about undecided voters may have changed by now – we’d have to check the latest TAPS surveys to know for sure.  A few months from now, looking back at this sort of data can help social scientists like Smith understand the big picture of why the election played out the way it did.  Think back to even earlier this election cycle, to a different Republican candidate.

SS: So someone like Jeb Bush very early on had a relatively low level of support, and it was also very unstable. His supporters were sometimes floating over to Rubio and then sometimes coming back, and exceptionally so. And it was a surprise to us because we thought that the Bush name would be very well-known, and that any early support he'd have would be pretty solid support. People would know what they're getting. But he proved to be one of the three or four candidates named early in this process whose support just never solidified. Well, we can show that and then we can tell you where the Bush supporters went over time.

CN: The main strength of TAPS can also be a frustration – that is, when you want to measure effects over time, by definition, these questions take a long time to answer. Months, years even. But the panel has already provided researchers with all kinds of insights – and not just about the 2016 election. Data from TAPS goes beyond the headlines and helps social scientists know more about the “why” behind human opinions and behavior. For example, some researchers are looking at the connections between personality and politics.

SS: There's good reason to think that people with different personalities respond to politics in different ways. People differ with respect to their fear response, their comfort level with new ideas. There are big differences among people in their need for order in their lives.  And you can just multiply the number of personality traits. The psychology profession is just filled with these. Now a handful of these personality traits have proven to be really among the most important things in understanding people's social lives. It's reasonable to think that some of these traits influence how people respond to politics. And maybe even shape their partisanship - that if you're someone who needs a lot of order in your life and you're uncomfortable with foreign ideas, that you might be a person who favors what we might call law and order policies. That might make you say more Republican than Democratic, and it might actually then bubble up from your personality. There's also reason to think that maybe your partisan preferences influence your personality. That by paying attention to certain political actors and opinion leaders you've come to accept, say a fearful attitude about your community or the world, this actually affects your personality on a daily basis. So this interaction between personality and politics is something that's proven to be really quite interesting. Well, we're in a position to measure personality traits using the same batteries of questions that psychologists have been using for decades, and then relating that to the in-depth questions we have about political attitudes. We're really just beginning to explore these differences.

CN: These are the types of big questions that TAPS was built to answer. Little by little, survey by survey, the panel participants help social scientists better understand American elections, American politics, and maybe most importantly, American people. 

SS: So TAPS, by going back to the same people over and over again, provides the social sciences a wide variety of research opportunities that you cannot get in any other way.

CN: Many thanks to Steven Smith for joining Hold That Thought. To learn more about TAPS and see a list of the many articles and books that have come out of the panel data, visit taps.wustl.edu. You can find a link on our website – holdthatthought.wustl.edu, where you can also listen and subscribe to all of our podcasts. Thanks for listening.