Reflections on the American National Election Studies: An Interview with Nicholas Valentino

Reflections on the American National Election Studies: An Interview with Nicholas Valentino

Nicholas ValentinoThis year marks the 75th anniversary of the American National Election Studies– the definitive study of American political attitudes and behavior. The ANES has run national surveys of citizens before and after every presidential election since 1948, providing a rigorous, non-partisan basis for understanding contemporary issues as well as change over time. According to the National Science Foundation, the ANES provides “gold-standard data on voting, public opinion, and political participation in American national elections.” The Center for Political Studies interviewed ANES Principal Investigator Nicholas Valentino to gather his reflections on the history of the ANES, what we’ve learned from it, and where we’d be without it. This interview has been edited and condensed.

It’s the 75th anniversary of the ANES. What do you want people to know about it?

VALENTINO: It’s really important to remind ourselves about how important the ANES has been in terms of a gold standard survey, both methodologically and substantively, that other polling outfits use as a benchmark. We don’t often talk about those things, because we assume it is well known how important the ANES is for the entire discipline. But it is important that the ANES collects the highest quality samples; we care a lot about measurement, and we don’t change measures unless we know that the alternative is a better measure of the concept that we’re trying to tap. Every year, hundreds of dissertations and publications are written using ANES data. That means ANES data appear in thousands of scientific works per decade, and tens of thousands over the life of the project.

This is the most centrally important study of American public opinion and political behavior in existence. 


What’s unique about the ANES survey?

VALENTINO: With the rise of other less expensive samples and sampling methods, especially volunteer internet samples, entire generations of students are now able to collect data on their own rather than rely on infrastructure projects like the ANES. This is no doubt a great innovation, because each scholar can learn a lot about new topics and perform survey experiments for which the ANES is not well suited. But these new samples and sampling techniques can’t match ANES’s data quality both in terms of measurement practices and the sampling quality. They can’t provide valid and reliable estimates of opinions that the population holds because they do not collect representative samples of the country. They can’t replace address-based samples and the face-to-face interviewing methodology that the ANES has employed (with the COVID-year exception in 2020) for 75 years. And, perhaps equally importantly, with its time series questions, the ANES allows one to measure population level change in opinions over time. The ANES is very unique for both of these reasons, and so we think it has made good on the hopes of its founders 75 years ago. 

Let me say a bit more on how the ANES represents truly invaluable infrastructure for the entire discipline. The Department of Astronomy at Michigan recently invested in the instrumentation program for the Extremely Large Telescope (ELT), which is a consortium of universities and partners building the largest optical telescope in the world. Few universities can afford to build their own telescopes; instead, they buy into a measurement strategy that is fundamentally collaborative. The National Science Foundation supports these big projects, because they know that scholars from universities around the country can use the telescope regardless of the research budgets on their home campus. Well, that’s what the ANES is doing for the study of public opinion and political behavior. We include questions on the survey that have been asked before because we want continuity of measurement, and that are interesting to the broadest array of users in the community. The user community has several mechanisms for influencing the content of the ANES, including specific proposals and by serving on the large and diverse Advisory Board.


Where would we be today were it not for the ANES?

Valentino: One example is that we are currently very concerned about affective polarization or the polarization of society along lines of party. It was once the case that Democrats and Republicans didn’t dislike each other very much at all. In fact, if you ask Democrats and Republicans how warmly they felt toward their own party and toward the out-party, they once gave both roughly the same score. If you track this in the ANES over time, we see that after the 1980s there was a dramatic, continuous increase in how much Americans disliked members of the other party. That discovery has triggered a wide ranging set of inquiries about whether it was driven by elite preferences, differences in the party platforms, or by something that was changing in the electorate. We’re still trying to answer this question about why. But we wouldn’t really have known how big the problem was, or when it started, if not for the ANES. The ANES tells us when it started, and how fast it grew. And those pieces of information are very critical for understanding why it happened. 


What kinds of questions have been asked continuously over the history of the ANES? 

Valentino: It must have been very hard in 1950 to know which questions to ask, especially if one wanted to begin a time series that would last 75 years. You can imagine how different the world was when Warren Miller and his colleagues started thinking about what questions they should ask. One example of a question we have asked continuously over time is, “How much do you trust the government to do what’s right?” If you look up the trend on government trust on the accessible web page– the ANES Guide to Public Opinion and Electoral Behavior– you will see a dramatic decline in the percentage of people who say they trust the government to do what’s right. This trend is one of the things people point to when they worry about democratic backsliding and the deterioration of democratic norms. Back in the late 1950s, in the Eisenhower era, almost 80% of Americans said they could trust the government “most of the time or just about always.” Now that number has decreased to about 20%. Another question has been asked for quite some time on this topic: “Are governmental officials crooked?” At one time the vast majority of Americans responded “not many,”or “hardly any.” Since 2008, there has been a massive increase in the share of the electorate from either party who say “quite a few” elected officials are crooked. So that’s a massive shift and a decrease in trust that we’re aware of because of the ANES asking the same questions consistently over time. Americans’ trust in government hit its nadir in 2020– making the future of the ANES particularly valuable for understanding how democracies react to declines in public confidence.


What have we learned from the ANES about how voters select their candidate?

Valentino: One of the early discoveries of the founders of the ANES was that psychological attachments to parties themselves are group identities.

Party identification is the core predisposition shaping political beliefs and behaviors. In other words, it may be that votes are driven most strongly by those partisan identities rather than a citizen’s individual preferences on a bundle of policies. That discovery can have a very scary set of implications.

Most definitions of democracy insist that citizens have the ability to freely choose candidates who represent their issue preferences and hold elected officials accountable when they fail to produce results consistent with their campaign promises. So what if pre-existing attachments to parties drive vote choices even when candidates are not delivering on issues or economic performance? In that system, leaders could pursue policy interests divorced from the majority’s will. It reduces the impact that issues, trends, and performance have on democratic elections. If so, elections increasingly resemble sports events, in which it is forbidden to criticize the home team. 

The ANES has documented a long-term shift in party identification, and especially a decline in Democratic dominance from the 1950s to the present. Over time, there is a lot of variation in partisan attachments that is not predicted by social group memberships. You might look at individual-level psychological forces to explain, for example, how white, blue-collar Democrats were pushed toward the Republican party after the Civil Rights movement. That is a dynamic you couldn’t understand by looking solely at social group memberships or by considering material interests. The early scholars of the ANES were among the first to discover that, contrary to popular belief, people don’t vote with their personal pocketbooks. People are motivated less by their own financial security than by how they think the country is doing as a whole. Americans, at least until very recently, support the incumbent if the country is doing well, even if that candidate is from the other party. The ANES was central in discovering this pattern. It will also be central for understanding how these long-term linkages between economic performance and support for incumbents may be breaking down.


What have we learned from the ANES about why some voters participate in politics and others don’t?

Valentino: It is often remarked that political science has few “laws” – theories that are so powerful and elegant that they have reached the status of a settled scientific explanation for important phenomena. One exception is the Civic Volunteerism model of participation proposed by Verba, Schlozman and Brady (1995). This theory claims that people turn out because they want to, because they’ve been asked to, or because they can. Those forces– engagement, recruitment, and resources– are all measurable, and the ANES measures them over time. The model has done a fantastic job explaining who will participate in politics in a variety of ways.

But short-term forces also matter. For example, people with a lot of resources participate in some elections but not others, and some people who have very few of these advantages participate, even though the model might predict that they wouldn’t. The short-term forces are also measurable, and many political psychologists are working on those. We have, for example, identified short-term emotional dynamics that can drive people to the polls– sometimes, but not others– even holding resources constant. You need to ask people about the emotional intensity they are experiencing in a given election, the intensity of competition between the candidates, about campaign negativity, and the tone of political discourse. These factors have also been measured by the ANES, and so our theories of participation are getting stronger and more comprehensive.


How and why are new questions added to the ANES?

Some parts of the ANES every election are about mapping long-term trends, but about 30% of the content on the ANES is concerned with the contemporary moment. People think that the ANES is only about asking the same questions, 75 years straight, but that is a profound misconception. The project solicits input from the user community every cycle, and relies on its diverse Advisory Board to identify contemporary issues it must explore. The ANES actively cultivates new questions about very new issues that might be driving the dynamic in a given election year, but may or may not be permanent parts of our landscape. And we try to balance those new inquiries against the space needed in order to measure long-term trends. Only then can political science as a discipline understand how we got to this point, and predict where we might be going.



  • The ANES is a centrally important study of American public opinion and political behavior.
  • The ANES provides gold-standard data on voting, public opinion, and political participation in American national elections, priding itself on sampling quality and measurement quality.
  • Looking at long-term trends, we currently stand at a low-point for Americans’ trust in government and an all-time high for affective polarization. These trends are understandable because the ANES’s time series questions track change over time.
  • The ANES has demonstrated that political identity plays a strong role in determining how voters choose candidates.
  • People participate in politics when they are interested, asked to participate, and have the resources to participate. But short-term factors like the emotional intensity of an election also matter. The ANES survey measures all of these factors.
  • In recent cycles, about 30% of the survey has been dedicated to new questions investigating contemporary issues based on input from its community of users.
  • Tens of thousands of dissertations and publications have been based on data from the ANES over the project’s history.

Nicholas Valentino is Professor of Political Science at the University of Michigan and a Research Professor affiliated with the Center for Political Studies at the Institute for Social Research. He received his Ph.D. from the University of California, Los Angeles, in 1998. His research focuses on political campaigns, racial attitudes, emotions, and social group cues in news and political advertising. His current work examines the intersection between racial attitudes and emotion in predicting political participation and vote choice, as well as the sources of public support and opposition to immigration in the U.S. and cross-nationally. 

The ANES is currently a collaboration of Duke University, the University of Michigan, Stanford University, and the University of Texas at Austin, with funding from the National Science Foundation.

This post was developed by Tevah Platt.

Rising inequality isn’t driving mass public support for redistribution: Charlotte Cavaillé’s ‘Fair Enough? explains why not.

Rising inequality isn’t driving mass public support for redistribution: Charlotte Cavaillé’s ‘Fair Enough? explains why not.

In the past, excessive economic inequality has ended… badly. As Charlotte Cavaillé points out in her new book that studies the public’s reaction to rising inequality, “only mass warfare, a state collapse, or catastrophic plagues have significantly altered the distribution of income and wealth.” Will this time be different?

Through income redistribution, democratic and political institutions today have a clear mechanism to peacefully address income inequality if voters demand it. Still, as highlighted by Cavaille in Fair Enough?: Support for Redistribution in the Age of Inequality (Cambridge University Press), greater wealth and income inequality are not leading to greater demand for an egalitarian policy response as many would expect.

Cavaillé reports there is little evidence of rising support for redistribution, especially among the worse off. Consider public opinion in the two Western countries with the sharpest increase in income inequality: In Great Britain, public support for redistribution is decreasing, and in the United States, the gap between the attitudes of low-income and high-income voters is narrowing. What, asks Cavaillé, can we conclude about public opinion’s role as a countervailing force to rising inequality?

Based on Cavaillé’s doctoral work, Fair Enough? introduces a framework for studying mass attitudes toward redistributive social policies. Cavaillé shows that these attitudes are shaped by at least two motives: material self-interest and fairness concerns. People support policies that would increase their own expected income. On the other hand, they also support policies that, if implemented, “would move the status quo closer to what is prescribed by shared norms of fairness.” Material interest comes most into play when policies have large material consequences, according to Cavaillé, but in a world of high uncertainty and low personal stakes, considerations of fairness trump considerations about one’s personal pocketbook.

How fair is it for some to make a lot more money than others? How fair is it for some to receive more benefits than they pay in taxes? Cavaillé emphasizes two norms of fairness that come into play when we think about such questions: proportionality, where rewards are proportional to effort and merit, and reciprocity, where groups provide basic security to members that cooperatively contribute. Policy disagreement arises because people hold different empirical beliefs regarding how well the status quo aligns with what these norms of fairness prescribe.

With fairness reasoning in the picture, Cavaillé writes, “baseline expectations are turned on their heads: Countries that are more likely to experience an increase in income inequality are also those least likely to interpret this growth as unfair.”

Should we expect growing support for redistribution to be a driving force behind policy change in the future? A change in aggregate fairness beliefs, Cavaillé argues, will require a perfect storm: a discursive shock that repeatedly exposes people to critiques of the status quo as unfair on the one hand, and a large subset of individuals whose own individual experience predispose them to accept these claims as true on the other. Policy changes in postindustrial democracies are possible, Cavaillé concludes– but they are unlikely to be in response to a pro-redistribution shift in public opinion.

Charlotte CavailléCharlotte Cavaillé is an assistant professor of public policy at the University of Michigan’s Gerald R. Ford School of Public Policy and an affiliate of the Center for Political Studies at the Institute for Social Research. Her dissertation, on which ‘Fair Enough’ is based, received the 2016 Mancur Olson Best Dissertation Award.

Tevah Platt and Charlotte Cavaillé contributed to the development of this post.

Does Disability Shape Political Identity?

Post by Joshua Thorp

The 20th century Disability Rights Movement (DRM) is among the most successful and durable mass protest movements in American political history. Throughout the 20th century, DRM activists fought for equal political and economic rights– the desegregation of classrooms and public accommodations, the dismantling of coercive residential institutions, and an accessible built environment. Disabled activists and their allies occupied warehouses and university campuses, chained themselves to city buses, and took sledgehammers to inaccessible street curbs in an effort to make their voices heard. These remarkable episodes of political cohesion culminated in the 1990 passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), a bill heralded by senator Tom Harkin, its chief congressional champion, as “the emancipation proclamation for people with disabilities.”

Used by permission. © Tom Olin Collection, Ward M. Canaday Center for Special Collections, The University of Toledo Libraries.

Despite the prominence of disability in American political history, political scientists have only a thin understanding of how disability shapes political behavior. For the most part, existing research focuses on election accessibility and emphasizes the role of disability in curbing political participation. Several studies find that despite being no less interested in politics, people with disabilities are substantially less likely to turn out to vote than their non-disabled peers. 

However, researchers have largely overlooked the potential impact of disability on political psychology. In particular, we don’t know whether disabled Americans see their disability as a politically meaningful feature of their social identities, or whether disability might serve as a basis for political cohesion or collective action. While the history of disability rights activism suggests disability may be politically mobilizing for a small minority of activists, less is known about whether or to what extent disability may also shape political identity in the mass public. 

In a recent working paper, I find that disability is indeed an important dimension of political identity for many disabled Americans.

While disabled Americans do not appear mobilized along party lines, a sense of belonging to the disability community is associated with ideological liberalism and support for a range of social and redistributive policies.

Measuring disability as a social identity

I used an online survey of 700 Americans with disabilities to investigate two questions: Who embraces disability as a social identity? And how does identifying as a person with disability shape political attitudes? To collect the sample for this study fielded by Forthright Panels, I screened participants using the same measure of functional disability used by the U.S. Census and the CDC. I asked respondents a range of questions about their everyday experience of disability. I asked them how old they were when they first acquired their disability, how visible or noticeable their disability is by others, and how much functional limitation they experience in everyday life. Then, I asked respondents a series of questions about the degree to which their disability shapes their social identity: their sense of who they are as individuals and their place in the social world. 

I compiled these items into a new measure of disability as a social identity– what I call the “Disability ID” scale. Those who score higher on the Disability ID scale consider disability to be an important feature of their personal identity, and place a high value on belonging to the disability community. A sizable minority of Americans with disabilities, about 35%, fall “high” on this scale.

Who embraces disability as a social identity? 

I looked at the various characteristics that are associated with higher scores on the Disability ID scale. This analysis yielded two main findings. First, Disability ID is closely tied to impairment characteristics. Respondents with more severe, visible, and long-standing impairments were all more likely to report strong Disability ID. Second, Disability ID is stronger among those who participate in social and political institutions for people with disabilities. Specifically, Disability ID was stronger among those who reported receiving disability accommodations at school or at work, and among those who reported receiving financial assistance from the government on account of their disability. 

How does Disability ID shape political attitudes?

Next, I wanted to understand how Disability ID shapes political outcomes. I first looked at the relationship between Disability ID and two key outcomes of interest to political scientists: ideology (liberal or conservative), and partisanship (Democrat or Republican).

The results of this analysis were intriguing. On the one hand, those higher in Disability ID tend to be more politically liberal. On the other hand, Disability ID has no discernible impact on political partisanship. In other words, those who identify strongly with their disability tend to support ideas often associated with liberalism, like government support for social services, but aren’t more likely to identify as Democrats. 

I also wanted to understand the potential impacts of Disability ID on policy preferences. Given the particular forms of social and economic disadvantage that accompany disability, I predicted that Disability ID would be associated with support for government policies aimed at improving material well-being for people with disabilities. To test this prediction, I asked participants a series of questions about their level of support for a variety of social and redistributive policies. 

A clear pattern of results emerged. Disability ID is strongly positively associated with support for a range of redistributive policies, especially those aimed at increasing financial security, public safety, and access to healthcare. In fact, in several instances the magnitude of the effect of Disability ID on policy attitudes is similar to that of explicitly political variables, such as political partisanship and ideology. On the other hand, Disability ID has relatively little impact on attitudes toward policies theoretically more peripheral to disabled Americans, such as public schools or border security. 

Validity testing

To test the validity of these results, I conducted a similar analysis using data from the 2022 Cooperative Election Study (CES), a prominent national political survey fielded by YouGov and researchers from Harvard University. Unlike the Forthright Panels study, the CES survey was collected in two waves, where the same set of participants were interviewed before and after the 2022 midterm elections. I included questions about Disability ID on the pre-election survey fielded in the fall, and questions about policy attitudes on the post-election survey fielded in January 2023. This survey design allowed me to conduct a stronger test of the relationship between Disability ID and policy attitudes. By asking participants about their policy preferences in the post-election survey, I am able to observe the relationship between Disability ID and political attitudes in a context where participants have not already been primed to think about their disability.  

Results from the CES mirror those found in the Forthright study. Again, Disability ID is strongly positively associated with support for redistributive policies, most notably those aimed at increasing financial security and access to healthcare. Furthermore, as in the Forthright Study, the magnitude of these effects is often similar to that of explicitly political variables, such as political partisanship and ideology. 

Why does this matter? 

These results should encourage researchers to think differently about the role of disability in shaping political behavior. More than 30 years after the passage of the ADA, disability remains an important dimension of socioeconomic inequality and disadvantage. People with disabilities are roughly twice as likely as their non-disabled peers to be unemployed and living in poverty, and are nearly four times as likely to be victims of violent crime. Addressing these inequalities is likely to require political engagement and collective action. While existing work has emphasized the role of disability in curbing political participation, these results suggest that for many disabled Americans, a shared social identity as members of the disability community may be an important source of political cohesion and empowerment.

Joshua ThorpJoshua Thorp is a PhD candidate in Political Science at the University of Michigan. His research focuses on political psychology in the United States and other developed democracies, with a particular focus on the politics of disability. Thorp’s dissertation examines disability as a dimension of political identity in the United States. He is an Institute for Social Research Next Generation scholar at the Center for Political Studies, and was the recipient of the 2022 Converse-Miller fellowship in American political behavior. 

The Forthright survey was generously funded by the Center for Political Studies (CPS) and the Rapoport Family Foundation. The CES data was collected as part of the University of Michigan team module of the Cooperative Election Study at CPS, led by Donald Kinder.

Tevah Platt and Julia Lippman contributed to the development of this post.

Could Balanced Coverage Improve Public Trust in Fact-Checking Sites?

The following work was presented at the 2022 Annual Meeting of the American Political Association (APSA). The presentation entitled “Building Bipartisan Trust in Fact-Checking Sites: The Effects of Asymmetric Coverage on Source Credibility” by Hwayong Shin was a part of the session “Trust and Distrust toward News” on Saturday, September 17, 2022. This research was supported by the 2022 Garth Taylor Fellowship in Public Opinion. The post was developed by Hwayong Shin and edited by CPS staff.

A major challenge confronting our society is the intensity of  partisan disagreements, even about what constitutes fact. To address this challenge, fact-checking was initiated by organizations such as and PolitiFact in the 2000s to assess the accuracy of political claims. For fact-checking journalism to be helpful, there should be widespread public trust in such websites.  Yet about half of Americans believe fact-checkers are biased.

Two decades after its emergence, why has fact-checking failed to get traction among the public? What changes can help fact-checking sites earn greater trust? 

Research shows that, PolitiFact, and Washington Post Fact Checker in recent years often corrected Republicans at a greater rate than Democrats. These asymmetries indicate a specific way in which fact-checkers pursue objectivity. Unlike traditional journalism that in principle seeks objectivity by covering all sides equally, fact-checking’s coverage decisions are guided by what is consistent with the best available evidence. Thus, fact-checking sites at times disproportionally critique one party more often than the other as guided by evidence. However, this approach poses a dilemma. Their asymmetric coverage may reflect genuine imbalances in reality, but it can also undermine trust in fact-checking sites among partisans.

To examine how asymmetric coverage affects partisans’ source credibility perceptions, I conducted a survey experiment in 2020. Participants were asked to assess a news source based on a set of headlines where the majority of headlines challenged 1) Republicans, 2) Democrats, or 3) both parties equally (baseline condition). The condition where most headlines challenged Republicans was considered as uncongenial to Republicans and congenial to Democrats (vice versa for the condition in which most headlines challenged Democrats).

The results indicate that partisans perceive a source to be less credible when its coverage corrects their own party more often than the other (uncongenial asymmetry, i.e., most headlines challenge in-group), compared to when the source corrects each party at a similar rate. Contrary to popular belief that Republicans tend to be more resistant to uncongenial news and facts, Democrats reacted more negatively to uncongenial asymmetric coverage than Republicans. Even when a source challenged the opposite party more often (congenial asymmetry, i.e., most headlines challenge out-group), partisans found the source to be less credible than symmetric coverage.  In fact, the results show that partisans found congenial asymmetry to be particularly less credible when a portion of coverage challenged their own party on a highly polarized topic such as immigration, which is the type of issue that fact-checking sites often cover.

Democrats reacted more negatively to uncongenial asymmetric coverage than Republicans.

This study highlights a difficult dilemma that fact-checkers face in their coverage decisions. While asymmetric coverage of political parties is at times needed in response to evidence, it can alienate partisans from both sides. We might believe that balance for its own sake should be avoided, but more symmetric coverage of political parties and further efforts to signal nonpartisanship can help build broader public trust in fact-checking sites.

Hwayong Shin is a Ph.D. candidate in Political Science at the University of Michigan. Her research investigates ways to mitigate the partisan divide and build common ground by increasing the credibility of evidence-based information and by invoking shared emotions and experiences. Shin is a Next Generation scholar at ISR’s Center for Political Studies and was awarded the 2022 Garth Taylor Fellowship in Public Opinion.

ObSERV Study improves methods for observing elections and election-related violence 

Post developed by Anne Pitcher, Rod Alence, Melanie Roberts, and Katherine Pearson

Secure elections are essential to democracy. ObSERV, a new study by researchers at the Electoral Institute for Sustainable Democracy in Africa (EISA) and the University of Michigan, with support from the University of Witwatersrand (Wits), presents a data collection methodology that improves the placement of election observers in order to improve the quality of their observations regarding the electoral process.

Election Observation Missions (EOM) seek to provide impartial observation of the electoral process in order to ensure the peaceful conduct of elections and to protect the rights of citizens to participate and to vote. On the African continent, however, the deployment of observers has been driven more by practical convenience than by a representative and systematic approach to deployment. Deploying observers just taking convenience into consideration potentially results in the collection of information from observers that is biased or misleading. Subsequently, this information can influence the content and tone of election reports that EOMs issue regarding the extent to which elections are “free” and “fair”.

Observer data that is collected more systematically and is geographically referenced provides a more accurate and representative description of an election. Such data can also be linked more fruitfully to other sources of contextual information – from local demographics and infrastructure to partisan polarization and the prevalence of political violence. ObSERV’s approach to deploying observers not only supports the goal of assessing how free and fair the current election is, it also enables researchers to analyze and better understand the causes of deeper threats to democracy, such as election-related violence and electoral fraud.

How does ObSERV work? 

ObSERV uses computer algorithms to group polling stations into local clusters and then to draw a random sample of clusters to be visited by observer teams. Stations are clustered to minimize driving distance for each team, which must cover at least 12 stations on election day, using routing tools similar to those used by modern carpooling apps. Clusters are then categorized between regions and urban and rural locations, and the required number of clusters is selected randomly within each category.

Clusters are subjected to a security assessment, to ensure that observers can safely access them. Where the security assessment (commissioned by the observer mission itself) identifies safety concerns with a cluster, it is removed and a substitute is drawn using the ObSERV method. Once in the field, observers use EISA’s Popola monitoring system to report on a range of election-related activities, from rallies to voting. The information captured helps the mission evaluate the overall conduct of the election, and a substantial part of it is curated for inclusion in the ObSERV data set.

The value of ObSERV

By collecting observer data systematically and attaching geographical coordinates, ObSERV facilitates linking to other data sets relevant for analyzing and better understanding localized patterns of election-related violence. Applications are not limited to issues of electoral security and violence. The data collected also include station-level details such as long voter queues, missing materials, voters being turned away, and voters showing up at the wrong station.

ObSERV’s approach can be adapted for anywhere observation takes place, as it accommodates the practical challenges of deploying an observer mission. By applying systematic methods, observers end up observing polling stations that have previously been overlooked, improving the quality of election observation. Over time, use of the ObSERV method will contribute to a cumulative body of research data, promoting better understanding and analysis of African elections and ultimately help protect the integrity of the democratic process.

Can Democracy Survive? The 2021 Miller-Converse Roundtable

Every year the Center for Political Studies (CPS) celebrates two founders of the Institute for Social Research (ISR) and CPS: Warren Miller and Phil Converse. The 2021 event featured a roundtable discussion of research by three CPS faculty members: Ken Kollman, Robert Franzese, and Pauline Jones.

The theme of the roundtable presented on April 8, 2021, was “Can Democracy Survive?” Ken Kollman introduced the event, noting that the survival of democracy was a question that Miller and Converse worried about. Their ambition was to study survey respondents and political parties and candidates much like other scientists studied cells and atoms and planets, but they cared about the fate of democracy. Their legacy of scientific inquiry into politics and society continues at ISR and CPS. A recording of the event is available below.

Ken Kollman: Moderation and Extremism in American Political Parties

Cover of book titled Dynamic Partisanship: How and Why Voter Loyalties ChangeKen Kollman examines partisanship in a forthcoming book written with John E. Jackson, Dynamic Partisanship: How and Why Voter Loyalties Change. The book, from University of Chicago Press, presents a framework that relates the changes that political parties undergo, and the partisanship of the electorate in four countries: the United States, the United Kingdom, Canada, and Australia.

Political parties are changing and adopting new issue positions, says Kollman, and the mass public pays attention to these movements. Both partisanship and voting decisions respond to the people’s evaluations of these partisan positions relative to their own interests.

Kollman makes the case that both major parties in the United States are perceived to have moved away from the center since 2008. These patterns include a continuation of the shift of the working class towards the right and the Republicans the shift of more educated voters to the left and the Democrats. These shifts have consequences for politics and for the survival of democratic processes.

Most people in the US hold their partisanship for life, but notable portions of the electorate change over the course of their lifetime. The most common reason they change is that they perceive the major parties as moving away from them or toward them on issues of fundamental importance, including economics and racial liberalism. They change much less often because of the performance of a party in office or because they change their ideology or issue preferences.

In The American Voter, Miller and Converse wrote about partisanship as a result of socialization; they argued that partisanship shapes the perceptions of events, of candidates, and the vote. Kollman and Jackson don’t necessarily argue with this. The American Voter portrayal of partisanship remains robust and is good at predicting the vote. In contrast, Kollman and Jackson focus on the dynamics of partisanship and how partisanship changes. Group memberships based on interests and elements of socialization determines partisanship. It’s malleable and they model it as a form of what’s called Bayesian updating, a method of modeling how people incorporate new information in their decisions.

Kollman and Jackson are continuing to analyze the patterns from the past to predict what’s going to happen in the future if the two parties take different positions. The chart below shows how different groups of voters would respond if the Democratic Party moved to the left. What they find, first, is that partisanship becomes more Democratic for every group as the Republicans become more extreme. African Americans are complex in that they prefer the state of the Democratic Party in 2016, but their partisanship actually drops away if the Democratic Party moves to the left or moves to the right. Among white voters, the Democratic Party would lose partisans (and votes) if it moved to the left.

Graphic showing simulated partisanship for racial groups in the US.

The trends of both parties away from the political center are worrisome for many people. Extreme party positions, including the pursuit of extralegal strategies to either pass policies or hold and maintain power, could become more likely as parties become more extreme.

Rob Franzese: What Causes People to Become Political Extremists?

What explains the rise of far-right nationalist-xenophobic and rightwing populism in the United States and other developed demoocracies? Robert Franzese presented research to address this question.

Scholars have noted that the rise of anti-immigrant, anti-globalization, anti-elite, anti-government sentiments correspond to a sea-shift of white working class voters to the right. One explanation for this shift is the notion that people have been left behind socioeconomically, and experience angst as a result. While support for parties farther to the right increased everywhere, it is especially notable in regions experiencing economic hard times, demonstrating support for these economic explanations of voting behavior.

Surveys have examined whether the shift to the right was attributable to socioeconomic malaise and decline, or whether it was due to cultural status threat. The data from these surveys seem to suggest that the political shift resulted from preceved xenophobic threats and it doesn’t have anything to do with the economic conditions.

However, Franzese contends that this conclusion is both wrong and wrong-headed. Instead of either/or explanations for political shifts, he suggests that we think in terms of both/and. Both neighborhood socioeconomic malaise and xenophobic anxiety associated with cultural change are both part of a broader sense of socioeconomic and cultural threat, as described in the graphic below. Franzese emphasized the importance of heterogeneity of perceptions. Some people are more susceptible to demagogic railing against the elite, the media, and foreigners. Other people will be immune, and may even become more repulsed by populist appeals.

Flowchart explaining socioeconomic hardship and decline, xenophobic sociocultural threat-perception, and racist extremism

This approach shows that the socioeconomic conditions the individual experiences are partly contributing to social-cultural threat perceptions that produce support for extremism. It’s not just economic hardship that creates the response, but economic hardship contributes to the sense in some respondents that their group is being left behind.

Extremism, especially far-right extremism, is a rising threat to democratic society. Therefore, understanding better the provenance of this rising far-right extremism and concomitant rise in rightwing populism is urgently essential. Casting the possible causal processes as some xenophobic or socioeconomic threat perception is unhelpful. These processes are better understood as complementary.

Pauline Jones: Democratic Survival, Using Lessons from the Muslim World

Pauline Jones notes that many people think that democracy is either unlikely or impossible and due to familiar tropes that Islam and democracy are somehow incompatible.However she contends that democracy and Islam are not incompatible at all. Muslim democracies exist all around the world. Several Muslim-majority countries have transitioned to democracy in the latter half of the 20th cenury, and there are Muslim-majority democracies in multiple diverse regions across the world.

Survey research shows popular support for democracy among Muslims, and that Muslims are mostly supportive of democracy as a form of government, and they do not view democracy as incompatible with their religious principles or institutions. Furthermore, democracy itself is in a constant state of struggle to survive. Jones describes democracy not as an outcome, but a process toward resilience. Democracies are constantly undergoing a test of vitality.

There are two key dimensions to typologizing varieties of democratic vitality. The first is duration: the length of time that a country maintains a certain level of democracy since its initial transition to democracy. Both geographically and temporarily, it’s important to consider the context of that particular democratic state. The second dimension is trajectory: the overall trend in a country level of democracy since its initial transition to democracy. Trajectory measures how consistently a country has improved or maintained the level of democracy over time, since its transition.

To measure the level of democracy, Jones uses the Varieties of Democracy Electoral Democracy Index (DDI). This score focuses on the role of elections as the core feature of democracy, and includes aspects of the political system that increase the likelihood that elections will result in democratic outcomes. She then created a typology based on the dimensions of duration and trajectory, which describes four modes of democratic survival, depicted in the graphic below. Democracies are grouped into categories including striving, thriving, waning, and backsliding.

Striving democracies have short duration, but an upward trajectory. The thriving category is the best case scenario: long duration and upward trajectory. In the waning category there is neither duration, nor trajectory. Democracy is just not taking hold, and this is where you might see the transition away from democracy. Democracies in the backsliding category have long duration, but have a downward trajectory.

Jones investigated eight Muslim majority countries and fit them to these modes: Albania, Malaysia, Mali, Tunisia, Indonesia, Senegal, Kyrgystan, and Turkey. She found, surprisingly, that for that most of the Muslim-majority countries in the sample were striving are thriving.

Graphic showing modes of democratic survival for 8 Muslim countries

The key takeaway from this research is that democracy is an ongoing struggle to survive. Jones challenged the audience not to think about democracy as meeting some threshold, but rather as a sort of ongoing struggle, and to think about it as varying degrees of vitality, as opposed to focusing on the mortality of democracy. This, she concludes, allows us to have some degree of cautious optimism. Democracy faces constant challenges; survival is just a matter of the degree of the threat and the strength of the institutions meeting that threat.