In every U.S. presidential election since 1948, the American National Election Studies (ANES) has conducted pre- and post-election surveys of a large representative sample of American voters. ANES participant interviews looked different in 2020 than they did in the past; the COVID19 pandemic made traditional face-to-face interviews impractical and risky. The study team began planning for the extraordinary circumstances in March, without any idea what the conditions would be when interviews began in August. The team pivoted nimbly to redesign the study even as the onset of data collection approached.
The majority of interviews in 2020 were completed as web surveys, some following an online format similar to one used in 2016, and others using an innovative mixed-mode design. Respondents to the mixed-mode surveys were randomly assigned either to complete the questionnaire by themselves online, or to take the survey with a live interviewer via a Zoom video link. Few surveys conduct live video interviews, but the ANES study team felt that it was critical to explore the use of this technology as a potential means of balancing issues of cost, continuity, and data quality.
To answer online surveys, respondents must have reliable access to the Internet and comfort using computers. Under normal circumstances, people without access to computers or the Internet in their homes can gain access in public settings like libraries or at their workplace. With many of these places closed due to the pandemic, online access became a bigger challenge. In mixed-mode cases where it was difficult to complete a web or video interview, interviewers contacted the respondents to secure a phone interview. Providing phone interviews helped the team strengthen sample quality by reaching respondents without access to the Internet as well as those who are less comfortable using computers.
Data collection for the 2020 surveys, out of necessity, departed significantly from the practices of the past 70 years of the ANES. The study team will continue to monitor and address the implications of these changes. In the end, the team was pleased to field a very high quality survey with relatively high response rates, thoroughly vetted questions, and the largest sample in the history of ANES.
Pre-election interviews began in August 2020. The pre-election questionnaire is available on the ANES website. The questionnaire includes time series questions dating back to the earliest days of the ANES survey, as well as new questions that reflect more recent developments in the study of American politics. The ANES team must always be prepared to add a few questions late in the design process to capture substantial developments in the presidential campaign or American society. In 2020 the survey added questions about election integrity, urban unrest, and COVID-19, among other topics.
The investigators, ANES staff, and their survey operations partners at Westat monitored the data collection closely, in case further adjustments in procedures or sample were required. The final pre-election sample consists of over 8,200 complete or sufficient-partial interviews. This includes a reinterview panel with the respondents from the ANES 2016 Time Series. Over 2,800 respondents from the 2016 study were reinterviewed, more than three quarters of the original group.
Post-election interviews began on November 8, 2020, and will be completed on January 4, 2021. This post-election effort includes additional respondents who took part in the 2000 study of the General Social Survey (GSS). Due to the pandemic-altered timing of the GSS data collection, it was not possible to interview these individuals prior to the election. However, these respondents completed nearly all of the ANES post-election interview, plus almost ten minutes of critical questions that appeared on the ANES pre-election interview, and several additional questions suggested by the GSS team.
ANES staff will continue to review and clean the data into the new year, including checks of respondent eligibility that may alter the final sample in modest ways. Pending this review, the team expects response rates to come in slightly below the 2016 web response rates.
Overall, despite the challenges of this past year, the ANES study team was able to gather robust data from a large probability sample of Americans, extending the longest-running, most in-depth, and highest quality survey of US public opinion and voting behavior, at a critical juncture for American society and democracy. The team will continue to share updates, here and on the ANES website, as data from this survey become available.
As the 21st century began, religion was spreading rapidly. The collapse of communism had left a psychological vacuum that was being filled with resurgent religion, fundamentalism was a rising political force in the United States, and the 9/11 attacks drew attention to the power of militant Islam. There were claims of a global resurgence of religion.
An analysis of religious trends from 1981 to 2007 in 49 countries containing 60% of the world’s population did not find a global resurgence of religion—most high-income countries were becoming less religious—however, it did show that in 33 of the 49 countries studied, people had become more religious (Norris and Inglehart, 2011). But since 2007, things have changed with surprising speed. From 2007 to 2020, an overwhelming majority (43 out of 49) of these same countries became less religious. This decline in belief is strongest in high-income countries but it is evident across most of the world (Inglehart, 2021).
A particularly dramatic shift away from religion took place among the American public. For years, the United States had been the key case demonstrating that economic modernization need not produce secularization. But recently, the American public has been moving away from religion along with virtually all other high-income countries—in fact, religiosity has been declining more rapidly in the US than in most other countries.
Several forces are driving this trend but the most powerful one is the waning grip of a set of beliefs closely linked with the imperative of maintaining high birth rates. For many centuries, most societies assigned women the role of producing as many children as possible and discouraged divorce, abortion, homosexuality, contraception, and any other sexual behavior not linked with reproduction. Virtually all major world religions encouraged high fertility because it was necessary, in the world of high infant mortality and low life expectancy that prevailed until recently, for the average woman to produce five to eight children in order to simply replace the population. Religions that didn‘t emphasize these norms gradually disappeared.
A growing number of countries have now attained high life expectancies and drastically reduced infant mortality rates, making these traditional cultural norms no longer necessary. This process didn’t happen overnight. The major world religions had presented pro-fertility norms as absolute moral rules and firmly resisted change. People only slowly give up the familiar beliefs and societal roles they have known since childhood, concerning gender and sexual behavior. But when a society reaches a sufficiently high level of economic and physical security, younger generations grow up taking that security for granted and the norms around fertility recede. Ideas, practices, and laws concerning gender equality, divorce, abortion, and homosexuality are now changing rapidly. Almost all high-income societies have recently reached a tipping point where the balance shifts from pro-fertility norms being dominant, to individual-choice norms being dominant.
Several other factors help explain the waning of religion. In the United States, politics explains part of the decline. Since the 1990s, the Republican Party has sought to win support by adopting conservative Christian positions on same sex marriage, abortion, and other cultural issues. But this appeal to religious voters has had the corollary effect of pushing other voters, especially young liberal ones, away from religion. The uncritical embrace of President Donald Trump by conservative evangelical leaders has accelerated this trend. And the Roman Catholic Church has lost adherents because of its own crises. A 2020 Pew Research Center survey found that an overwhelming majority US adults were aware of recent reports of sexual abuse by Catholic priests, and most of them believed that the abuses were “ongoing problems that are still happening.” Accordingly, many US Catholics said that they have scaled back attendance at mass in response to these reports.
Although some religious conservatives warn that the retreat from faith will lead to a collapse of social cohesion and public morality, the evidence doesn’t support this claim. Surprising as it may seem, countries that are less religious actually tend to be less corrupt and have lower murder rates than religious ones.
Each year, Transparency International published a Corruption Perception Index that ranks public-sector corruption in 180 countries and territories. Is corruption less widespread in religious countries than less religious ones? The answer is an unequivocal “No”—in fact, religious countries actually tend to be more corrupt than secular ones.
This pattern also applies to other crimes, such as murder. Surprising as it may seem, the murder rate is more than ten times as high in the most religious countries as it is in the least religious countries. Some relatively poor countries have low murder rates, but overall, prosperous countries that provide their residents with material and legal security are much safer than poor countries. It’s not that religiosity causes corruption and murder, but that both crime and religiosity tend to be high in poor countries.
In early agrarian societies, when most people lived just above the survival level, religion may have been the most effective way to maintain order and cohesion. But as traditional religiosity declines, an equally strong set of moral norms seems to be emerging to fill the void. Survey evidence from countries containing over 90%of the world’s population indicates that in highly secure and secular countries, people are giving increasingly high priority to self-expression and free choice, with a growing emphasis on human rights, tolerance of outsiders, environmental protection, gender equality, and freedom of speech.
As societies develop from agrarian to industrial to knowledge-based, growing existential security tends to reduce the importance of religion in people’s lives and people become less obedient to traditional religious leaders and institutions. That trend seems likely to continue, but pandemics such as the current one reduce peoples’ sense of existential security. If the pandemic were to endure for decades, or lead to an enduring Great Depression, the theory underlying this article implies that the cultural changes of recent decades would reverse themselves.
That’s conceivable but it would run counter to the trend toward growing prosperity and rising life expectancy that has been spreading throughout the world for the past 500 years. This trend rarely reverses itself for long because it is driven by technological innovation which, once it emerges, usually persists and spreads. If that happens, the long-term outlook is for public morality to be less determined by traditional religions, and increasingly shaped by the culture of growing acceptance of outgroups, gender equality, and environmentalism that has been emerging in recent decades.
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.