The State of the 2020 Presidential Campaign with Less Than a Month to Go

This post is the first of a three-part series. Click here to read about contrasting narratives of the 2020 presidential election campaign, presented by Josh Pasek. Click here to read about news coverage during the election, presented by Stuart Soroka.

With less than a month to go before the 2020 U.S. presidential election, CPS faculty members Michael Traugott, Josh Pasek, and Stuart Soroka presented their latest findings on the state of public opinion and media coverage of the campaign. The event took place on October 14, 2020; a recording is available below. Click here to view tweets from the event

 

The State of the 2020 Presidential Campaign 

Michael Traugott began by noting that this is a very interesting and unusual election. When Donald Trump ran for President in 2016, he had no prior experience in governing, and he ran explicitly as an outsider. “He is typically focused on his base,” said Traugott. “Unlike any other first-term president, who takes office and thinks about how to enlarge his coalitions.” In the 2020 presidential election, Trump is now an incumbent with a record to defend. His campaign strategy before the COVID-19 pandemic was to run on a strong economy, and to turn out his base. However, the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic has altered the course of the campaign dramatically. 

 

Graphic showing the share of registered voters who identify with the GOP. Division of partisanship in the constituency

Traugott emphasized that it is important to recognize that there are more Democrats in the adult population in the U.S. than there are Republicans. Data from the Pew Research Center show that there are about as many independents as Democrats, both of these groups outnumber the Republicans.

Furthermore, there are substantial racial and ethnic differences in party support. Among whites, the Republicans are the favored party. Among Blacks, Democrats outnumber Republicans by eight to one. Among Hispanics, Democrats outnumber Republicans by a little more than two to one, and among Asian Americans, about five to one. The demographics of the U.S. are shifting, and whites are expected to be a minority in the population by the mid-2040s. Traugott points out that there is a significant question about what it means to be a Republican or a Democrat in today’s society and how that is likely to change across the next 20-25 years. 

 

Candidate Trait Assessments 

Traugott presented data on assessments of the candidates’ traits, collected in a recent survey by the Pew Research Center. Respondents to this survey were more likely to see Joe Biden as compassionate than Donald Trump, with a 33 percentage point advantage. Biden was also seen as a good role model, with a 26 percentage point advantage, and honest, an 18 percentage point advantage. Trump stands out as energetic to respondents, with a 16 percentage point advantage.

 

Graphic showing survey responses to questions about candidates' policiesPolicy Differences Between the Candidates

Traugott presented the results of a survey that asked respondents about their confidence that either Biden or Trump would make good decisions in various policy areas. Respondents rated the candidates evenly on making good decisions about economic policy. Across a series of social issues, including law enforcement and criminal justice, nominees for the Supreme Court, and foreign policy, Biden has a growing advantage. 

 

Polling Data  and Voter Turnout 

Taking a national view of the polls, Biden currently has a 10.6 percentage point lead over Trump according to FiveThirtyEight. However, Traugott points out that in two of the last five U.S. presidential elections, the candidate receiving the most votes did not win the election because of the electoral college. Traugott instead encouraged the audience to pay attention to who is leading in the battleground states. He noted that Biden has an advantage in seven of these states, whereas Trump has an advantage in Texas, and Georgia is currently too close to call. 

Among people who say that they’re going to vote in-person on election day, Trump is ahead by a margin of two to one. However, Biden has an advantage among those who are going to vote by mail and those who will vote in-person before election day. Traugott noted that as of October 14, there were about 10 million votes already cast in this election.

The Democrats are emphasizing turnout voting in large numbers, whereas the Trump administration has been sowing doubt about the integrity of the electoral system. Traugott presented data collected by YouGov for Yahoo News, which show the partisan differences in attitudes about whether the election will be rigged or not. Republicans are much more likely to believe that there will be problems with vote counting and irregularities. Democrats are more likely to believe election security experts who say the U.S. presidential election cannot be rigged. Traugott concluded by saying “I think the most disheartening part of this is when the respondents were asked do you think this year’s presidential election will be free and fair, only about a quarter of the respondents said yes.”

Survey responses to voter confidence in the outcome of the election.

This post is the first of a three-part series. Click here to read about contrasting narratives of the 2020 presidential election campaign, presented by Josh Pasek. Click here to read about news coverage during the election, presented by Stuart Soroka.

 

Presidential Debate Candidate Stance Analysis

By Lisa Singh, Stuart Soroka, and Kornraphop Kawintiranon for the Georgetown University McCourt School of Public Policy

This post looks at the opinions of Twitter users surrounding the first Presidential Debate. We look at content containing at least one debate hashtag, shared immediately before, during, and after the debate; and we determine the “stance” or opinion (for or against) of each tweet towards Biden and Trump.

The figure below shows the average proportion of expressed support or opposition for the candidate every minute of the debate from 8pm (20:00) to 11:30pm (23:30). A score above zero indicates a net positive stance towards the candidate. A score below zero indicates a net negative stance.

Presidential Debate 1: Stance of Candidates on Twitter

Presidential Debate 1: Stance of Candidates on Twitter

 

We see that in the hour before the debate begins, both candidates have a net negative stance. In other words, more opinions against each candidate are being shared than are opinions for each candidate. At around the 11 minute mark in the debate (roughly 21:11), pro-Biden expressions begin increasing, and continues to increase until the overall stance is in support of Biden. In contrast, around the same time, stance towards Trump decreases and continues to decrease for the first 10 minutes.

Over the course of the debate there are specific moments that help and hurt each of the candidates. When there is perceived bickering, there is usually a decline in stance for both candidates, although there are exceptions. The moment in which Trump received the most support was when he spoke about judges. Biden’s best moment was when he discussed race relations and the need to support black Americans.

By the end of the debate, the stance of Twitter discussion towards Biden had increased by 0.5 – a striking shift. He clearly benefited from the debate, at least in the short term amongst Twitter users. In contrast, the stance of Twitter discussion towards Trump decreased by approximately 0.2. Even as there was a good deal of opposition towards Trumps expressed immediately before the debate, there was even more negativity towards him at the end of the debate.

It is worth noting that within an hour of the debate the expressed stance towards Trump returned to pre-debate levels. These are decidedly negative, of course; but the additional negative impact of the debate on Twitter discussion of Trump may have been short-lived. The same is not true for Biden. The hours surrounding the debate saw a marked shift in expressed stance towards Biden, from by-minute averages that were anti-Biden to clearly pro-Biden. The shift is evident only 10 minutes into the 90-minute debate, and durable for the hour following the debate as well.

Twitter is by no means an accurate representation of public opinion more broadly – we must be sure to interpret these results as indicating the debate impact on Twitter discussion, not the public writ large. That said, where Twitter is concerned it seems relatively clear that Biden ‘won’ the debate.

Information about the analysis:

This analysis was conducted using approximately 1.3 million tweets that contained at least of the debate hashtags. We collect posts using the Twitter Streaming API. We use the core debate hashtags for this analysis, e.g. #debates2020, #presidentialdebate2020, etc. We determine if the tweet showed support, opposition, or neither for each candidate. For each minute, we compute an aggregate stance score as follows: Stance Score = (# Support – # Oppose) / (# of tweets that minute having a stance). To determine the stance itself, we trained a BERT fined tune model with a single layer on 5 million posts related to election 2020. We also had three people label 1000 tweets with stance to further improve our model.

This analysis was conducted by the Political Communications Election 2020 project of the Social Science and Social Media Collaborative (S3MC). The faculty involved in that project include Ceren Budak (University of Michigan), Jonathan Ladd (Georgetown University), Josh Pasek (University of Michigan), Lisa Singh (Georgetown University), Stuart Soroka (University of Michigan), and Michael Traugott (University of Michigan). The work is funded in part by National Science Foundation awards #1934925 and #1934494 and the Massive Data Institute. This project is a collaborative effort by the University of Michigan and Georgetown University to address how to harness the abundance of data from social media in order to understand social and political trends better. For the latest updates about this group’s research related to the 2020 Election, visit the project website: https://s3mc.org/political-communication/election-2020-project/. For information about the interdisciplinary methodology being developed by this group, visit: http://smrconverge.org/home/methodology/

 

Party System Institutionalization and Stability in Competitive Authoritarian Regimes

ICYMI (In Case You Missed It), the following work was presented at the 2020 Annual Meeting of the American Political Science Association (APSA). The presentation, titled “Electoral Volatility in Competitive Authoritarian Regimes” was a part of the session “Elections Under Autocracy” on Sunday, September 13, 2020.

Until recently, there has been little need to measure the electoral volatility, changes in vote shares between parties, in authoritarian regimes because most conventional authoritarian regimes were either one-party or no-party systems. In general, high levels of volatility are considered to be a sign of instability in the party system and show that the existing parties are unable to build connections with their constituencies. 

New research by Wooseok Kim, Allen Hicken, and Michael Bernhard examines the ways that electoral volatility in democratic regimes may be useful for understanding competitive authoritarian regimes. 

As a greater number of authoritarian regimes have permitted electoral competition and greater party autonomy, electoral volatility has become more salient. Multiparty elections in competitive authoritarian regimes are different from those in democracies, in that competition is more constrained and incumbents have the ability to manipulate the outcomes. 

Electoral volatility can provide clues about the level institutionalization in the ruling and opposition parties, as well as the level of support for the authoritarian incumbent. Low volatility suggests a high level of stability and control in the ruling party institutionalization; high volatility as associated with weak party organizations, weak societal roots, and low levels of cohesion. 

The authors tested the relationship between electoral volatility, which is the most commonly used measure of party system institutionalization, and the survival of competitive authoritarian regimes. To do this, they used a dataset that included authoritarian regimes in the post-WWII period that hold minimally competitive multiparty elections with basic suffrage, which are determined using indicators from the Varieties of Democracy (V-Dem).


Specifically, the authors measure two types of electoral volatility in competitive authoritarian regimes: type-A volatility and type-B volatility. Type-A is volatility measures the exit and entries of parties from the system. Type-B volatility measures the reallocation of votes or seats from one party to a competitor.

Type-A is volatility measures the exit and entries of parties from the system. Type-B volatility measures the reallocation of votes or seats from one party to a competitor.

Electoral authoritarian regimes are more stable when they tightly control the party system and the opposition is disorganized. The authors conclude that type-B volatility promotes authoritarian replacement, while type-A volatility is associated with a greater likelihood of a democratic transition. In addition to considering measures of party system institutionalization in authoritarian regimes, future case studies may shed more light on the link between electoral dynamics and outcomes.

 

The American National Election Study (ANES): History and Insights from Recent Surveys

This year the American National Election Study (ANES) will conduct its 19th time series study of a presidential election. In every U.S. presidential election since 1948, the ANES has conducted pre- and post-election surveys of a large representative sample of American voters. 

On August 12, 2020, Vincent Hutchings gave a talk outlining the history of the study, and why it is the “gold standard” of political surveys. You can view a recording of his talk below, and view tweets about the talk here

 

The history and significance of the ANES

The ANES was originally launched at the Institute for Social Research at the University of Michigan. Since 2005 the study has been a collaboration between the University of Michigan and the Institute for Research in the Social Sciences at Stanford University

Since 1977, the ANES has been funded by the National Science Foundation. It is used by scholars as well as high-school students, college students, and journalists. The data are made publicly available online for free as soon as it is processed after the election; principal investigators of the study do not receive privileged access to the survey data. 

The ANES aims to answer two fundamental questions: how do citizens select the candidate they vote for? Why do some citizens participate in politics (e.g., vote, work on campaigns, etc.) while others do not? These questions are answered with nationally representative survey data. 

The value of the ANES comes not only from the care and precision brought to designing questions, but also from the way the study balances continuity and innovation. In order to achieve this balance, the ANES asks identical questions over time about vote choice, turnout, party identification, ideology, political information, and attitudes about candidates. But even as questions are preserved over time, new questions are added about issues as they arise. The investigators and board members solicit public input on new questions and determine which ones will add value. 

Recent data trends

Professor Hutchings outlined findings from some of the questions that were recently added to the ANES, including questions about the Black Lives Matter movement and police misconduct. 

Respondents to the 2016 ANES were asked to rate the Black Lives Matter movement on a 0-100 “feeling thermometer” scale. Ratings 50-100 degrees signal favorable feelings toward the group; ratings 0-50 degrees signify unfavorable feelings. Respondents would rate the group at the 50 degree mark if they don’t feel particularly warm or cold toward the group.

Graphic showing feelings about the Black Lives Matter movement by party and race.

Hutchings points out that there are important partisan and racial divides in the results shown above. For example, Black Republicans have warmer feelings toward the Black Lives Matter movement than white Democrats in 2016. This question will be repeated in the 2020 study, giving researchers a way to track changes in perceptions of the movement over time. 

Attitudes toward the Black Lives Matter movement were a very strong predictor of the candidate a respondent would vote for in 2016. As Hutchings showed using the graphic below, voters who supported the Black Lives Matter movement were much more likely to support Hillary Clinton for president. 

Graphic showing the relationship between support for the Black Lives Matter movement and probability of voting for Hillary Clinton in 2016.

Similarly, perceptions of police violence were correlated with voter preference. Those respondents who believed that whites were treated better by the police were much more likely to support Hillary Clinton than respondents who believed that police are unbiased. 

Graphic showing the effect of perceptions of anti-Black police bias on support for Hillary Clinton in 2016.

The value of the ANES

Professor Hutchings concluded his talk by reflecting on the value of the ANES. “It allows us an opportunity to assess the health of our democracy,” he said. “We can assess levels of trust in government, levels of perceived corruption in government, levels of racial animus, levels of religious and gender intolerance. We can assess how things have changed – or how things have not changed – over time. And we can only do this as a consequence of this study.” 

Discussing Election Day and Vote by Mail with Michael Traugott

Michael Traugott, research professor at the Center for Political Studies, was featured on the Michigan Minds podcast. In the recording and transcript below, Professor Traugott discusses the timing of the presidential election and whether there are fraudulent concerns with mail-in voting after President Trump tweeted about both topics on Thursday, July 30, 2020

A transcript of Michael Traugott’s remarks follows.

There’s been quite a bit of research about voting by mail. I actually participated in a research project in Oregon in 1995 the first all-mail election and there is no indication that mail-in voting produces any kind of fraud. For that matter, we have almost no fraud in American elections.

Having a vote-by-mail election is a complicated enterprise. Any election is an audit process in which the security of the ballots has to be maintained. Vote-by-mail elections actually cost more than a machine-based election because it requires more staff, the votes come in over a longer period of time, they have to be secured, and then counted. So it’s just as safe and secure, with proper preparation and with sufficient funding, as any other machine election. 

One thing that might be going on is that the President is trying to run out the clock, in the sense that in order to have a secure vote-by-mail election, we probably have to have the funding in place and the local election administrators have to be organized by September. So there’s really only four or five weeks left in order to prepare for our mail election or to have a large number of absentee ballots printed and available.

It’s actually a kind of a fable or a myth that we have national elections in the United States. We really have a series of state and local elections held on the same day. But all of the rules about how you register, how you can get an absentee ballot, how many precincts there are, all of this is regulated by local officials. So while each local official is responsible for the election in their own jurisdiction. It takes a lot of coordination to get the votes counted, for example, at the state level.

Congress passed a law in 1845 as a way of regularizing the Electoral College procedures and they said that federal elections will be held on the Tuesday after the first Monday in November in even numbered years, and that has set the calendar for all of our elections. They have never been altered or postponed. Sometimes under unusual circumstances a local election has been postponed, for example a storm or hurricane or something like that. But there is no way that the president of the United States can change the date of an election. It requires an act of Congress.

I think the tweets are strategic. Donald Trump uses these tweets to distract journalists, for example, from covering other important elements of the news of the day. They also have purpose in appealing to his particular base but they don’t serve any useful function for the general public. And in fact, I would be concerned that tweets about the quality of voting in the United States or the need to postpone election day would increase distrust in the public about how our government functions. That’s clearly a bad thing.

I think that the Trump administration is trying to question the validity of the election in November, the accuracy of the vote count and other related factors. It’s all of a kind of debilitating message to American democracy. 

Experts from the Center for Political Studies are available to discuss current topics related to elections, politics, international affairs, and more. Click here to find experts.

The words that made a difference in the 2016 election

What do voters really learn from the media about presidential candidates? A new book by experts from the University of Michigan, Georgetown University, and Gallup, Inc., Words That Matter: How the News Media Environment Allowed Trump to Win the Presidency, offers in-depth analysis and conclusions about the information that mattered most in the 2016 presidential election. 

Words That Matter is the collaborative work of eight authors: Leticia Bode, Ceren Budak, Jonathan M. Ladd, Frank Newport, Josh Pasek, Lisa O. Singh, Stuart N. Soroka, and Michael W. Traugott. The authors have expertise in a range of disciplines including public opinion, communications, public policy, and computer science, and they take different approaches to the study of campaign media. As a result, the book is nuanced in its handling of news content, social media posts, and survey responses. 

There are a number of reasons that the 2016 presidential campaign was exceptional. The media landscape has changed dramatically in recent years, with many people accessing and sharing news through social media. The authors find that news coverage during the 2016 campaign “was more negative than in recent previous presidential campaigns, consistent with these candidates being the most personally unpopular nominees in polling history.” 

Words That Matter guides readers through the media’s process of producing information, how that information gets to voters, and what information voters actually absorb. The authors argue that advances in media technology call for new ways to measure the information environment. They address this challenge through innovative surveys and content-analytic research techniques. 

This figure highlights the changing topics that Americans remember about Clinton since July. The x-axis shows the date and the y-axis the fraction of responses that fall into a particular topic.
This figure highlights the changing topics that Americans remember about Clinton since July 2016. The x-axis shows the date and the y-axis the fraction of responses that fall into a particular topic.

A key finding of the work is that the largely negative campaign played out differently for the two major party candidates: Donald Trump was confronted with a shifting but largely uninfluential series of scandals, whereas Hillary Clinton faced a single, stable, and influential scandal involving her use of a private email server. The authors show that the long-standing nature of the email scandal made it especially sticky in the public mind. They write “Even when there was other news about Hillary Clinton, the public thought about ‘her emails’—for months and months—indeed, starting before the election campaign was even underway.” 

Some scholars are skeptical that the media have the power to influence votes, whereas others believe that campaign messaging can have a large effect. The authors show that not all voters are equally open to influence. The most politically-engaged voters are steadfast, while the least engaged are difficult to reach at all. “The fact that middle- and low-engagement voters are the most susceptible to influence,” write the authors, “also helps us understand why the topics given heavy attention in the media environment can be consequential.”

News stories that are repeated over a long period of time are the most likely to be noticed by people who are not highly engaged with politics. The authors also find that telling people how to vote is less effective than simply changing the subject. Voters who don’t follow the news carefully may not remember the details of various scandals, but they do tend to notice if one specific issue garners sustained coverage. Those sustained scandals stand out as more important when voters make their choice. 

The authors conclude that media content can indeed shift voter behavior for some voters, and that in a close election like the 2016 presidential election, these effects can be of real consequence.