Developing the Political Citizen: Uncovering the Origins of Political Attitudes and Opinions (2019-2020)


How do early, formative experiences shape young voters’ political attitudes? Understanding the formation of political attitudes is critical, as young citizens will ultimately play a pivotal role in determining policy outcomes as they transition into adulthood.

Turnout among young voters is still historically low, and without a better understanding of the factors that shape their political attitudes and behavior, it will be difficult to create informed policies that effectively boost turnout among this critical voting bloc. Moreover, research on the development of political attitudes is entirely dependent upon the accuracy of the methods used to study these phenomena. Learning more about measurement error is critical to improving our understanding of how the development of political attitudes impacts voting behavior.

Project Description

This Bass Connections project will examine the development and measurement of political attitudes and voting behavior in the United States. The project team will continue work begun in 2017-2018 and 2018-2019 that focuses on understanding the political attitudes and behavior of young voters (and nonvoters). Additionally, the team will expand the scope to study common sources of error in the measurement of political attitudes as well as potential solutions for flawed measurement techniques.

With the broad goals of understanding the development of political attitudes and behavior and improving the methods used to study these phenomena, the aims of this project are to:

  1. Partner with the Wake County Public School System on annual surveys of students, enriching the information available to us by matching individual survey results to administrative records and voting files
  2. Survey and interview community leaders to understand local efforts to shape and increase civic participation
  3. Conduct new surveys and interviews to study how political attitudes develop over time
  4. Conduct a series of experiments to explore how different survey and interview modes affect respondents’ answers to traditional measures of political knowledge and attitudes.

Anticipated Outputs

Research publications and conference presentations; reports for community partners

Student Opportunities

Ideally, this project team will include 6-10 undergraduates and 2-4 graduate students with an interest in civic engagement. Edgar Cook will serve as project manager.

Undergraduates do not need a particular set of research skills prior to joining, and will engage in all aspects of the research, maximizing their exposure to a research environment. The project may be of greatest interest to students with a background in the social sciences. Graduate students should have some knowledge of statistics and survey methodology, and will mentor the undergraduates as they learn and employ these methods.

The team will work frequently with researchers from Wake County Public School System, the largest school district in North Carolina and the 15th largest in the U.S. with nearly 160,000 students in 171 schools.

The summer component is optional. Students who are available to work on coding videos of interviews and analyzing any data generated in the process can work an average of 10 hours per week during June and July.

The team will meet on a weekly basis to discuss project goals, assign roles and responsibilities and mentor undergraduate team members. Students will be assigned to projects based on their interests and encouraged to share their ideas and take the initiative on project proposals approved by the faculty. Graduate students will be primarily responsible for managing and mentoring the separate project teams. One undergraduate will be selected to manage the project’s website.

Students will have the opportunity to learn a broad array of research methods and engage with questions at the cutting edge of the fields of political science, psychology, survey methodology and election administration. Undergraduates should expect to gain knowledge of survey methodology, experimental design/analysis, data analysis and data collection. Graduate students will gain experience coordinating with external partners and helping manage interdisciplinary research.


Summer 2019 – Spring 2020

  • Summer 2019 (Optional): Continue analysis of interviews conducted with young voters in Fall 2018; develop coding scheme for analyzing nonverbal behavior of respondents and interviewers who participate in survey mode experiments; code video recordings of respondents and interviewers for nonverbal indicators of rapport, bias and deception
  • Fall 2019: Continue analysis of interviews conducted with young voters in Fall 2018; conduct new round of interviews with college students and members of Durham community to explore factors shaping development of political attitudes; analyze results for major themes underlying the decision to vote or not vote; combine with results from 2017-2019 Making Young Voters project to develop interventions aimed at boosting political participation; present findings at annual meeting of Southern Association for Public Opinion Research
  • Spring 2020: Analyze data from survey mode experiment for discrepancies in response patterns between online surveys, face-to-face interviews and Skype interviews; code video recordings of respondents and interviewers for nonverbal indicators of rapport, bias and deception; develop set of best practices for measuring political attitudes and opinions using emerging technologies/modes; present findings at annual meeting of American Association for Public Opinion Research and political science conferences


Independent study credit available for fall and spring semesters; summer funding available

See earlier related team, Making Young Voters: Policy Reforms to Increase Youth Turnout (2018-2019).


Image: Day 036: Primary, by Jess Liotta and Colin Liotta, licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

Day 036: Primary.

/faculty/staff Team Members

  • Edgar Cook, Trinity - Political Science-Ph.D. Student*
  • Christina Gibson-Davis, Sanford School of Public Policy
  • Sunshine Hillygus, Arts & Sciences-Political Science*

/zcommunity Team Members

  • Wake County Public School System