Ryan Zhang '21

Ryan Zhang holds a completed thesis in front of Widener LibraryThesis Title: Eyes on the Prize: Strategic Voting Considerations in American Presidential Primaries, 1984-2008

When I first began thinking about my thesis during my junior year, I thought I was going to write about social movements. Having grown up in West Windsor, New Jersey, a majority Asian American town, I wanted to study the history of Asian American activism through interviews and archival research. But amidst the uncertainty when COVID hit, I soon realized that interviews would be difficult to conduct and archives difficult to access. I pivoted, revising both my topic and my methodology.

I ultimately wrote about strategic voting considerations in American presidential primaries. The genesis of this project began during the dead of winter (5°F) in the bustling metropolis of Perry, Iowa (pop. 8,000), where as an organizer for Elizabeth Warren’s 2020 presidential campaign, I knocked on the doors of countless caucus-goers who shared a common concern: her ability to win. I became frustrated at this nebulous concern, not understanding what caused it or to what extent it shaped the decision-making of caucus-goers. When I turned to the academic literature on voting behavior for answers, I realized that classical theories of vote choice did not capture this concern that I encountered every day as a canvasser on the ground.

Classical theories of vote choice assume that voters exercise individual agency when casting ballots, selecting candidates sincerely based on variables like favorability, policy positions, and ideological proximity. However, recent election cycles, like the 2020 Democratic primary, have witnessed a rise in calls for strategic voting—that is, voting in primaries for a candidate based on strategic considerations, such as a candidate’s likelihood of winning, rather than personal preference. My thesis explored the tension between sincere and strategic considerations in presidential primaries and answered two questions: 1) To what extent, if any, do strategic considerations influence primary vote choice, and 2) How do strategic considerations change over time, both across contests and over the course of a single nominating contest?

Using national election surveys conducted between 1984-2008, I found that strategic considerations weigh significantly enough in voters’ minds to potentially swing primary outcomes and that variables like the presence of an incumbent, the number of terms a party has spent out of presidential office, and a voter’s levels of education and political efficacy, heighten their salience. Certain candidates, namely those with strong showings in the “invisible primary” were also more likely to be viewed as strategic choices by voters. In developing a theory of strategic voting that shows how strategic behavior exacerbates political inequality, my aim was to capture a more complete understanding of the American democratic electoral process.

The most challenging aspect of my thesis was asking the right research question. I took a lot of time at the beginning of the research process (a sizable chunk of the summer) to read through the voting behavior literature to understand how my interests fit into existing work. If there’s any advice I can give looking back, it’s that settling on the right question is key. It’s a process that takes time and that can’t be rushed, but framing the right question is crucial, since it will guide the rest of your work. There were also technical challenges to my thesis—sourcing, cleaning, and analyzing survey data aggregated from over a dozen sources, with tens of thousands of responses. I undoubtedly spent many long nights dealing with pesky error messages. But thankfully, I had mentors who, being statistically minded R-wizards, patiently assisted me throughout the process.

There were so many rewarding aspects of writing a thesis, one of which is that it served as a capstone for my undergraduate career. I saw so much of what I had learned at Harvard, from my first semester to now, reflected in the final product. Even more, this thesis was rewarding because it helped me (and hopefully others as well) better understand our democracy. So many candidates and ideas are dismissed because they are not “viable” or “electable.” By better understanding these concerns, I hope that we can respond more effectively to them. As I say in the closing line of my thesis: “Indeed, our elections should never be about elections. America’s most transformative moments—from women’s suffrage to Civil Rights—prevailed against seemingly impossible odds. In a world beset by inequality and injustice, we owe it to ourselves and to our posterity to make our honest voices heard.”