It was a couple of hours before the polls closed on Tuesday afternoon, but some of the results in the area’s most intriguing races were already known to a class of Centre College students and their professor.
For the second time in as many years, a class of Centre government professor Benjamin Knoll's students were fanned out across the area conducting exit survey's at Boyle County precincts. The numbers they got from the first 500 or so of a total 1,461 voters (about 1,300 from Danville), predicted the finish of both the 54th District State Representative race and the outcome of the Danville City Commission race, including their order based on vote total.
At about 4:30 p.m. Knoll posted the results on his blog, "Information Knoll:" Mike Harmon with 51.7 percent to Barry Harmon's 48.3 percent.
Actual results: Mike Harmon, 51.5 percent; Barry Harmon, 48.4.
The early sample also nailed the order and roughly what percentage of voters chose candidates for the Danville City Commission, with Paige Stevens, J.H. Atkins, Kevin Caudill and Paul Smiley taking the four spots. It also foreshadowed the slim margin by which Smiley defeated former commissioner Janet Hamner.
Knoll said he was pleasantly surprised by the uncanny results, which he has since mined for several meaningful nuggets of information.
Among Knoll’s initial findings, the data suggested how voters believe candidates may act once they are on the commission. Knoll measured how many people voted for each candidate, while also voting for any other candidate, to show whether there was a correlation.
The analysis showed voters believed perceived factions within the commission did exist. For example, those who voted for Atkins and Caudill tended to also vote for Stevens and, to a slightly lesser extent, Hamner, while voting for incumbents Ryan Montgomery and Gail Louis was also highly correlated.
"The assumption is that people are voting in particular patterns with the thinking that what they do will be similar if they are elected," said Knoll.
One of the more intriguing findings involved Paul Smiley, one of the newly elected members of the commission. The data indicates that Smiley, a former educator and administrator with Kentucky School for the Deaf, drew from voters with varying views on other candidates.
Knoll believes the correlation was strong enough to suggest Smiley is widely regarded as independent of any faction. Smiley's victory and Hamner's loss, Knoll said, could be explained in part by the fact they both received votes from people who went for Caudill and Atkins. Smiley, though, also got support from many who voted for Montgomery and Louis.
"Both camps seemed to think that he could be on their side," Knoll said.
Voters apparently also acted based on their views about how the commission decided some of the more controversial issues they confronted. Survey takers who disapproved of the handling of the city manager firing and hiring, and the purchase of the BISCO building tended to vote against the candidates who lost.
"In sum, the poll results strongly suggest that the results of the Danville City Commission election can best be interpreted as a referendum on the controversial decisions that the majority of the commissioners made throughout 2011 and 2012 (specifically on the city manager issue and the BISCO building purchase), despite the overall general public approval of more popular decisions such as the appointment of Tony Gray as police chief and the handling of the water plant expansion," Knoll wrote.
Despite public perception about voting blocs on the commission, Knoll emphasized his additional research showed the commission was actually in agreement an overwhelming majority of the time. The body was unanimous in 90 percent of their votes.
The data also showed that those who voted for Montgomery and Louis tended to approve of the job Bernie Hunstad has done as mayor. Not surprisingly, Hunstad's approval rating was lower among voters for the rest of the slate.
Overall, respondents gave Hunstad a 32 percent approval rating, compared to 45.6 percent who said they did not approve, and 22.3 percent who either didn't know or had no opinion. The commission's approval rating as a whole was a similarly low 31 percent.
As he did in 2011, Knoll used the self-identified political affiliation of voters to discern how partisan thinking impacts behavior in the non-partisan city elections. Again, it appeared there was at least some connection.
Smiley, Montgomery and Louis enjoyed an advantage ranging from 9-19 percent among conservatives and Republicans. Caudill, Atkins, Stevens and Hamner all had more support from self-described liberals and Democrats.
Knoll said the exercise has been useful for his own research and instructive for many of his students.
Approaching voters close to a polling place is a tricky proposition and many people are reluctant to participate. Knoll acknowledged the disproportionate number of people over 65 years old who declined to take the survey meant that group, and likely some more conservative voters, were underrepresented.
The students, enrolled in three of Knoll's courses, were schooled on the letter of election laws and given a script to loosely follow. Knoll said they were also told to be polite.
"We did over an hour of detailed, technical training, especially on the law and what you can and can't do within 300 feet of a polling place," Knoll said. "We spend a good deal of time making sure things go smoothly and on the whole students had a really good experience."
To view more of Knoll's findings and his analysis, visit his blog at www.informationknoll.com.