On attending the 1st Leuven-Montréal Winter School on Elections and Voting Behaviour

The 1st Winter School on Elections and Voting Behaviour, a joint endeavour between KU Leuven and the Université de Montréal, took place in Leuven, Belgium between 15th and 22nd January 2015. The school was organised by Ruth Dassonneville from KU Leuven, and brought together PhD students from universities across Europe and North America. The Winter School focused on specific sub-topics within the field of elections research, including: economic voting; strategic voting; psychological behaviour; issue voting; participation; and – pertinently for me – media effects. It aimed to give attendees an overview of methods and studies currently used to analyse the behaviour of voters during elections, as well the opportunity to present a paper and gain valuable feedback on our ideas, approaches, and research designs.

A number of high profile researchers were invited to deliver a class on each sub-topic and to act as discussants during the presentation of student papers. Key speakers were André Blais, Michael S. Lewis-Beck, Patrick Fournier, Claes de Vreese, Romain Lachat, and Marc Hooghe.  For ‘media effects’, I was fortunate to listen to a lecture and receive feedback from Claes de Vreese, editor of Political Communication and Professor and Chair of Political Communication at The Amsterdam School of Communication Research, University of Amsterdam. 

The paper I presented at the school described the methodological approach I take in my research on this year’s UK general election. Specifically, it highlighted the problems facing internet researchers in our attempts to collect valid and reliable data sets, suggestions for how we might overcome these, and an overview of how I intend to apply this within my own research. The feedback received from both de Vreese and my fellow PhD students was constructive and helpful. The Winter School fostered a sense of community amongst the students, as illustrated by the many who offered to put me in touch with, or send me the work of, scholars conducting research in my field. For those students in the early stages, or perhaps even their first few months, of research, feedback was extremely forthcoming from fellow students – perhaps because of our innate desires to project our own methodological preferences and conceptual predispositions on the research design presented. Nevertheless, personal preferences notwithstanding, the constructive suggestions and criticisms offered to all presenters was one of the most worthwhile features of the Winter School.

As one of the few researchers in attendance using predominantly qualitative methods, I found the Winter School to be particularly illuminating in terms of my understanding of the benefits of quantitative research, both to assess voting behaviour and the use of methods to establish relationships between different variables. Of particular interest to me were the papers presented relating to media effects which utilised quantitative or experimental designs. Jӧrg Hebenstreit, from Friedrich-Schiller-Universität Jena, presented a paper on the influence of money on the outcome of US elections; a topical area of study which has obvious ramifications for the ways in which advertising is used by parties, candidates and super PACS. Marijn Nagtzaam, from Leiden University, presented his initial research design on ‘second-order’ electoral personalization, proposing an exploration of the impact of preference voting for candidates based on a prior choice of party. Choosing a favourite paper from the day, though, leads me to Rim Sabrina Sassi’s submission, from Université Laval, on microtargeting in electoral campaigns.  Microtargeting is a fascinating subject, not least because of its meteoric rise as an asset for campaign teams, but also because of its ethical and societal implications – there are many angles from which this subject could be approached.  Sassi’s suggestion exploration through experiments using Facebook provoked much discussion and it is clear that this research design provides the basis for an interesting and highly original thesis.

Whilst the Winter School provided an important overview of research into elections and voting behaviour, the real benefit of the week spent in Leuven was the ability to connect with like-minded researchers and share knowledge and insights from an international perspective. The time I spent at the school gave me space to think about my own research and assess where it fits with studies being conducted by the next generation of elections scholars. Crucially, the Winter School introduced me to some fascinating new approaches and paths which I can investigate for application to my own research. Due to its success, the 2nd Winter School on Elections and Voting Behaviour looks set to be held in Montréal in 2016. Attendance is highly recommend for those political communication and elections scholars who would like to better understand how we fit into the research landscape, network with colleagues working internationally, and acquire lessons that can be applied to your own thesis.