The Center for Political Studies marked its 50th anniversary with a virtual celebration on October 29, 2020. The event featured a talk by Arthur Lupia titled “Now More Than Ever: The Increasing Public Value of Social Science Research.” The event began with a brief video of alumni and faculty who shared their reflections on what the center has meant to them; click here to view the video. A recording of the full event is available below.
Lupia acknowledged that we’re currently facing historic challenges. The COVID-19 pandemic, economic downturn, and resulting changes to education have all revealed injustices and inequalities inherent in our systems.
At the same time, there are incredible opportunities to improve quality of life, particularly for vulnerable populations. In particular, Lupia focused on social scientists as having opportunities to solve problems and improve life for others. Social scientists produce groundbreaking research, create fundamental data and analytic infrastructure, and provide essential training.
The effectiveness of this approach relies on several core principles. Research must be rigorous and provide an explanation of how we know what we know. Research must be ethical, coming from a genuine concern for solving real problems. Social scientists must be precise in measurement and conceptualization, because conducting science with greater precision creates outcomes that are more actionable, more useful, and more tied to quality of life. Finally, social scientists must strive to demonstrate causality. Compared to other sciences, Lupia said, social scientists are good at this and getting better.
These principles guide social scientists to do amazing things, Lupia said, but there’s also a challenge. Many people think they already know how things work. Why should they trust social scientists? Why should they pay them? In order to maintain the relevancy of research, social scientists must adapt by becoming more transparent, communicating better, and engaging better with the communities they serve.
Every day provides a new opportunity for social scientists to conduct credible and legitimate research that empowers people and improves quality of life, Lupia concluded. The rigorous work of social scientists is a way of serving others and providing great value to the public.
Vincent Hutchings outlined thedemographic shifts that are affecting levels of support for each party leading up to the 2020 election. As the makeup of the voting population changes in terms of gender, age, and race, the base of each major political party also changes. Hutchings presented results from a recent New York Times poll, which shows the state of the campaign as of October 2020. A recurring theme in the poll results is that Biden is performing better in the polls than recent Democratic candidates, while Trump is performing worse in the polls than previous Republican candidates.
Women have been a strong democratic constituency since 1980. Unsurprisingly, Biden is polling well among women in the current election cycle, performing even better than Clinton and Obama did in 2016 and 2012, respectively. Trump is underperforming in polls among women. Whereas recent Republican candidates have received around 40% support from women, Trump is polling around 35% support.
What is surprising is that Trump is underperforming among men, compared to recent Republican candidates. Typically, more than half of male voters support the Republican candidate; Trump is currently polling around 48% among men.
Younger voters are increasingly supporting Democrats. This is in part because younger voters are more racially diverse than older voters. Republicans typically capture around 35% of the youth vote, but in this cycle Trump is receiving even lower levels of support. Among older voters, the news for Republicans is even worse. Older voters tend to turn out to vote in higher numbers than younger voters. They are also more likely to be white, a constituency that leans Republican. In the most recent polls, Trump is polling at only 41%, which is significantly lower than expected for a Republican nominee; Biden is over-performing compared to recent Democratic candidates.
In the United States, whites have leaned Republican since 1968 – even higher during the Regan years. Trump is only polling around 50% support among white voters. The base of the Republican party has been non-Hispanic white voters for several decades. That share of the population has been declining, with important implications for support for both Democrats and Republicans.
The Importance of the Latino Vote
Angela Ocampo added to the conversation about the changing and diversifying electorate, with special emphasis on the growing Latino population. The non-white elegible voter population have accounted for 76% of growth in the electorate since 2000, said Ocampo. Latinos account for most of this growth, contributing 39% of the growth in the eligible voting population. The majority of this growth comes from US-born citizens who are turning 18 and becoming eligible to vote. In the 2020 presidential election, Latinos are projected to be the largest minority group among eligible voters for the first time.
Ocampo demonstrated that the differences in the growth of the Latino population at the state level is important. The proportion of Latinos in the voting population has increased sharply in key states, like California, Nevada, Arizona, and Texas. The emergence of these states as battlegrounds is largely attributable to an increase in Latino voters.
How consequential is the Latino vote? There has been a consistent trend toward increasing voter turnout among Latinos. Although immigration is often thought of as the most important issue for Latinos, polling shows that this group rates the COVID-19 pandemic, health care, and jobs as the most important issues in the upcoming election.
Ocampo notes that a record 32 million Latino voters will be eligible to vote in the 2020 election. Latino voters will continue to be influential in future elections. The Latino vote has grown, and the real question is how successfully candidates will be able to mobilize these voters.
The view from the states
Even if you only care about the outcome of the presidential election, said Jenna Bednar, you should still care about what’s going on in the states and in down-ballot races. Why? The electoral process is a product of the states. States structure elections by managing voter registration, identification requirements, and polling hours. States determine the qualifications of candidates and draw legislative districts. The electoral experience itself is determined by decisions about ballot design and whether states hold caucuses or primaries.
States shape the way we vote, and therefore the outcomes we get. Bednar reviewed the case of the butterfly ballot design in Palm Beach County, Florida, which led to voter confusion in the 2000 presidential election. Instructions for voters were confusing, and it was easy for voters to make mistakes. Following the irregular voting outcomes that stemmed from that ballot design, some people called for a standardized ballot. Bednar argued that slight differences in aspects like ballot design make for good experiments and innovation. She noted that ballots that are different in each state are not as easy to hack. Overall, these differences will rarely lead to problems.
Redistricting is a powerful way that states shape government at all levels. Bednar observed that Republicans have been more effective at drawing legislative districts to their benefit than Democrats. Democrats have been late to recognize the value of the states. Can we blame state governments for gerrymandering? Bednar said that while gerrymandering is not necessarily a good thing, you can’t blame a partisan process for having a partisan outcome. Many states, including Michigan, have adopted new laws to allow same-day voter registration, no-excuse absentee voting, and reforms to make the redistricting process less partisan. With all of this to consider, Bednar concludes that all voters should care about what’s happening at the state level, because the state laws and policies shape outcomes.
Stuart Soroka began his presentation by showing additional data from The Breakthrough, which assigns a sentiment to each response about the candidates, in order to track trends in the sentiment over time. This is not the sentiment of news content itself, but rather it’s the sentiment of the content that respondents remember. Soroka noted that the data show stability over time with a slightly positive average for Biden and a slightly negative average for Trump.
Sentiment of Recalled News about the Candidates
Amongst Republicans, Trump gets more positive recollections than Biden. Over the past month or so recollections of Trump have been a little more positive, albeit with a slight and statistically significant decline over the last month. Soroka said “That’s an interesting result because it runs contrary to what media observers might suggest. And contrary to what the Trump campaign’s own claims about negative coverage of Trump and mainstream media.”
Sentiment of Recalled News about the Candidates
The Impact of COVID-19 on the Sentiment of Recalled News about Trump
Next, Soroka focused on the impact of COVID-realted content on recollections of news related to Trump for Republicans, Democrats, and independents. The data show that as COVID-related content is associated with negative sentiment among Democrats, it’s associated with increasingly positive sentiment among Republicans. That trend is not just the product of Trump’s quicker recovery in the week of October 11th. It’s evident in weeks prior to that as well. “In short,” Soroka said, “partisans see the same information in fundamentally different ways.”
The Impact of COVID-19 on the Sentiment of Recalled News about Trump
Switching to analyses of news content, Soroka showed data on the ratio of Republican candidate mentions to Democratic candidate mentions in the first week of September across 11 major newspapers for every election back to 1980. Incumbents get more coverage than challengers, and this has been equally true for both parties. We see this for Reagan, we see it for Clinton, we see it for Obama. That imbalance tends to be roughly a 20-percentage point gap. If there are ten candidate mentions, six of those are for incumbent, and four for the challenger. There are two outliers, first in 2016 Trump got incumbent style coverage in terms of imbalance although he was not the incumbent. After the election there was lots of discussion in the Academy, but publicly amongst journalists and the media as well, especially expressing concern that the media had focused too much attention on Trump.
Balance of Coverage, 1980-2020
Now that Trump is incumbent, Soroka said that Trump is getting outsized proportions of coverage. This year, for every ten-candidate mentions, seven to eight of them are about Trump, and two to three of them are about Biden. Are there differences across newspapers? Soroka said these differences are relatively slight, and have barely changed over time. He also noted that public opinion data show that partisans see information in different ways; researchers cannot reasonably assume that coverage of Trump is viewed as negative or positive on average.
Overwhelming coverage of Trump makes it very difficult for citizens to learn about Biden. In other words, Soroka pointed out, “the nature of media coverage that I have just reviewed makes it possible for voters to decide on whether or not to vote for Trump, but it gives very little information that helps voters decide whether or not to vote for Biden.” The imbalance of coverage is evident across media outlets throughout this campaign, and at a rate that is roughly twice as large as we’ve seen for the last 40 years.
Soroka concluded by highlighting the areas in which the media can play a critical role in fostering the well-informed citizenry. He directed the audience to https://mediafordemocracy.org to find a set of recommendations on how to improve coverage of this election, as well as various possible outcomes of this election. Soroka is one of the signatories of an open-letter, signed co-authored and signed by more than 60 professors, at more than 40 universities.They hope this will be a useful resource for people interested in the role that media can play in American democracy both leading up to and following the election.
Josh Pasek said there are several ways that a scholar would look at the 2020 presidential election. One is looking at the structural features that set up the landscape in which the current election is taking place. Another is to look at the messaging that people are getting in the context of this campaign. Yet another is to think more broadly about the American political system and what that might imply. Pasek examined each of these perspectives in turn.
Pasek noted that there has never before been a U.S. president with a negative net favorability rating for his entire term, but this is true of Trump. A majority of individuals who have ever been asked whether they approve or disapprove of the president’s job have said that they do not approve. This is very unusual, said Pasek. Usually approval is strongly correlated with reelection chances, and an approval rate of 44 percent would not be associated with reelection. But it’s also an unusual way to target one-self as a sitting president, who typically tries to represent all the American people and to gain favorability among all of them.
The economic situation which is another of the major indicators to look at. The COVID-19 pandemic hurt the U.S. economy, and the economic growth in the last two quarters has been strongly negative. Pasek pointed out that strongly negative numbers tend again to be something that point against reelection of an incumbent president.
Pasek emphasized the incredible stability of polling in this election cycle. There has also been relatively stable attention to issues across the campaign. Pasek, Traugott, and Soroka contribute to a project called The Breakthrough, which asks people what they’ve seen, read, or heard about Biden and Trump over the past week. The survey has found that people are hearing essentially the same things about the candidates throughout the campaign.
This moment in American Politics
Pasek suggested there is another story that needs attention, which is this moment in American politics. He said we are in a moment “where there is increasing animosity in American politics.” Tying this sentiment to an increasing erosion of key Democratic norms, Pasek said that Americans are less likely to reject political violence than they were in 2017.
There are also issues that are more concerning, Pasek said, such as questions about whether the president is willing to accept the election results or engage in a peaceful transition of power if he does lose the election. He points to evidence that groups have been recruiting people to show up at the polls armed, which could be sort of a widespread attempt at voter suppression.
“Maybe that all points to a situation where things are a little bit more abnormal, and we really do need to worry about whether the models are right, not just because the models sometimes have error, but because they’re actually is enough distrust in the system that people may work against it,” said Pasek. If we were looking at a normal election year, Pasek said he expect this to be a change election. People tend to be not particularly happy when they don’t like the president overall, and whether the economy is poor, and polling fits in line with that pretty clearly. But given some of these unique contextual features of the campaign, he concluded that it is hard to know how this election cycle will end.
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.
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.
Policy 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.
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.”
Racial attitudes among whites are changing. Vincent Hutchings began his presentation by noting that white Americans seem to be participating in protest against racial injustice at higher levels than in the past. Does this represent a true change in sentiment, or just an illusion?
Support for the proposition that Blacks encounter barriers that whites do not has been increasing among white Americans over the last several years, and has increased more notably since the start of the protests following the death of George Floyd. Whatever the reason, Hutchings says there is “no denying that a larger fraction of whites are now willing to acknowledge racial bias.”
Hutchings designed a study to test the limits of changing racial attitudes. Between 2014 and 2020, whites became more willing to attribute police killings to systemic bias, but this increased recognition of bias does not necessarily lead to support for policy change. For example, most whites oppose reparations and removing Confederate names from Army bases.
To explore whether more information about racial disparities would change the opinions of whites, Hutchings several of his students conducted a study that they called “The Black Truth Project.” During the summer of 2020, they conducted an online experiment on a sample of 965 white subjects. One third of the subjects, the control group, received information defining the racial wealth gap in the United States. There were two treatment groups in the study. Each group was presented with the definition of the racial wealth gap, plus data on the state of the wealth gap today. The first treatment group was shown data that was labeled to emphasize Black disadvantage; the second treatment group was shown the exact same data, but with a label that emphasized white advantage.
When asked about the size of the racial wealth gap, the control group said there was a moderate size racial wealth gap. The treatment groups were more inclined to report a larger gap. None of the groups perceived the wealth gap to be as large as it actually is, but those who received more information aligned more closely with the truth. These effects were seen across all groups, including gender, partisanship, level of education, and level of political knowledge.
Next, the study assessed whether learning about the racial wealth gap changes policy views. Respondents were asked how important it is for the federal government to pass laws to reduce racial wealth gap. Hutchings and his team found very little change in support for policies that would address the racial wealth gap.
While the experiment showed that respondents were open to learning new information, that information did not change support for policy. Hutchings and his team plan to conduct additional studies to follow up on their findings.
Why are protests happening now?
Over the past several months, people have asked Shea Streeter why protests are happening now. What’s different about 2020 that has led to over 8,000 individual protests all over the country? Streeter studies police killings, and says that this current movement isn’t about just one death, it’s the culmination of movement building that has been going on for years.
Streeter contends that the protests we see today actually represent two simultaneous movements: the movement for Black lives, and protests for police accountability. There are significant overlaps between these movements. The movement for Black lives centers around the idea that racism is deadly, which is played out in racial disparities in COVID-19 death rates, and well as vigilante killings of Blacks, like Trayvon Martin.
The police kill over a thousand people in the U.S. each year. That’s a rate five times higher than in Canada, and a hundred times higher than in the U.K. Intersection is where things get deadly. African Americans are more than three times as likely to be killed by the police as whites.
Most protests emerge after police killings of African Americans. A large number of white Americans are killed by police officers, but their deaths are less likely to lead to protest. Overall 15% of police killings led to local organizing. But for African Americans, over a third of deaths at the hands of police lead to protests – seven times the response for whites.
Which means that the movement for Black lives is conducting a lot of work to hold police more accountable as well. How does the work of this movement develop? Streeter points to the example of Trische’ Duckworth of Ypsilanti, Michigan. Duckworth is the founder of an organization for survivors of sexual assault called Survivors Speak. When the surrounding community was impacted by COVID-19, the organization became involved with community aid. After an incident of police brutality in Ypsilanti in May, 2020, Survivors Speak was well-positioned to mobilize large numbers of people to protest.
The movements for Black lives and for police accountability have been building for years, says Streeter. Additional community support that have emerged in response to the COVID-19 pandemic have brought communities closer, while also highlighting racial disparities. All of this helps to answer why protests are happening at this particular moment in history. It comes down to the fact that local organizers who built local movements with little national attention, are now seeing the culmination of the capacity they’ve built.
The force continuum
The majority of Americans believe the death of George Flyod at the hands of police was wrong, and that the police officers should be held accountable. In his presentation, Christian Davenport introduced the idea of the force continuum, or the level of force that is acceptable in a given situation but this concerns individual police behavior against an individual citizen. What do Americans think is acceptable regarding how police officers and protestors interact? Answering this question is the focus of his work. Davenport’s research takes a deeper look at what Americans will accept and whether these acceptable actions vary by race and ethnicity.
Davenport emphasizes that this work is important because there will be more protests and more protest policing in the future. Inappropriate behavior on either side will prompt reactions from the government and voters. Differences of opinion about actions that are acceptable are rooted in community perceptions of police.
With this in mind, Davenport conducted a study that asked respondents to rate whether a particular action was more intense or severe when done by police or when done by a challenger to the police. While many discussions about police and protestor behavior revolve around the distinction between violence and nonviolence, this study was a way to tease out differences in perception of very specific tactics.
The results showed distinct differences in perception by the race of the respondent. In general, whites tended to view actions taken by a challenger or protestor as more violent. African Americans see almost all police behavior as more intense or severe.
The long-term consequences of the differences revealed by this research are important, says Davenport. The divergence in attitudes may play into the perception by whites that Blacks are more violent. Whether or not we can move beyond these differences depends on our ability to understand these differences and move past them.