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
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.
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.
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.
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.
Vincent Hutchings delivered the inaugural lecture of the Hanes Walton Jr. Collegiate Professorship in Political Science and Afroamerican and African Studies on March 31, 2021.
Vincent Hutchings and Anne Curzan at the inaugural lecture on March 31, 2021.
Swedish economist Gunnar Myrdal, the author of the landmark study An American Dilemma, believed that education was the key to racial progress. Myrdal wrote “There is no doubt, in the writer’s opinion, that a great majority of white people in America would be prepared to give the Negro a substantially better deal if they knew the facts.”
Vincent Hutchings began his inaugural lecture of the Hanes Walton Jr. Collegiate Professorship in Political Science and Afroamerican and African Studies by citing this quote, and immediately calling it into question. Is it true that policies aimed at alleviating the racial wealth disparities would gain more support if only whites knew the true extent of the gap?
A noteworthy aspect of the recent protests against police brutality and racial inequality has been the extent to which white Americans were participants in greater numbers than in the past. Even before the events of 2020, numerous surveys show whites becoming more racially progressive and acknowledging the reality of racial bias against Blacks. But does that mean that whites will support policies to reduce racial disparities? Professor Hutchings suggests that this is an example of a principle-policy gap; whites are prepared to acknowledge that injustice exists in principle, but they may not be willing to support redistributive policies.
The research team posited that the way the information was framed would be important. Past studies and media headlines about wealth disparities tend to frame the issue in terms of Black disadvantage. It’s less common to see a focus on the ways whites are advantaged.
A first study, conducted in June 2020, surveyed 2,024 online respondents. Respondents were randomly assigned either to a control group, where they were merely provided a definition of the racial wealth gap, or to one of two treatment conditions that provided a definition of the racial wealth gap, as well as textual and visual information on the current size of the Black/white racial wealth gap based on information from the 2017 Survey of Consumer Finances. The first treatment group received information framed in terms of Black disadvantage; the second treatment group received information with a white advantage frame.
The experiment was informative, but not persuasive. White participants in the treatment groups that received more information about the size of the racial wealth gap subsequently showed a better understanding of the issue. Black participants in the treatment groups also showed a fairly accurate assessment of the wealth gap, with less difference between the control and treatment groups. Neither whites nor Blacks in the treatment groups adopted different positions on racial policy. The one policy area where the study found some change was reparations; white respondents who received more information about the wealth gap were slightly more supportive of reparations.
If the study participants were informed about the wealth gap, but did not change their support for policies to address it, perhaps the treatments were not strong enough? In open-ended questions in the first study, some participants responded that they believed the wealth gap existed because whites worked harder than Blacks. To address these issues, the research team launched a second study in March 2021, building on the first study and specifically highlighting the limited impact of education on reducing the racial wealth gap.
The second study included four treatment groups and a control group.
Treatment group 1 received information about the wealth gap framed in terms of Black disadvantage.
Treatment group 2 received information about the wealth gap framed in terms of white advantage.
Treatment group 3 received information about the wealth gap framed in terms of Black disadvantage, as well as information that Black household heads with a college degree have the same wealth as white household heads without a high school diploma.
Treatment group 4 received information about the wealth gap framed in terms of white advantage, as well as information that white household heads without a high school diploma have the same wealth as Black household heads with a college degree.
Whites across the ideological spectrum are informed by the treatments in the second study. Surprisingly, the additional information about education was less effective than the general population frames.
Again, the results showed that a better understanding of the racial wealth gap does not make participants more progressive on racial policies. However, those in the first treatment group (receiving information framed in terms of Black disadvantage) showed mild increase in support for reparations.
Surprisingly, white liberals in the fourth treatment group (receiving information about the wealth gap and education, with a frame of white advantage) had a threat response to the treatment. When responding to questions about competition for jobs and political influence, white liberals in the fourth treatment group perceived more competition between racial groups. They responded to questions about racism, such as whether whites have greater wealth because they are naturally superior and whether the use of racial epithets by whites was acceptable, in less progressive ways.
These studies show the limits of providing information about racial disparities. People are not necessarily persuaded to close the gaps when they know more about them. When asked if he was discouraged by the outcome of the studies, Professor Hutchings said that as an educator, he is an optimist. He said that he is motivated by his students to keep asking questions about political opinions and behavior. Hutchings and his students will field new surveys to further examine these questions in the fall of 2021.
Post developed by Nicholas Valentino and Katherine Pearson
Survey research is an ever-evolving field. Technology has increased the number of ways to reach respondents, while simultaneously reducing response rates by freeing people from the constraints of one land-line telephone per household. Surveys remain an essential tool for making inferences about societal and political trends, so many survey researchers offer incentives to survey respondents in order to ensure a large and representative sample. Financial incentives to complete surveys, in turn, entice some people to respond to a large number of online surveys on a regular basis, essentially becoming professional survey respondents.
Survey methodologists have carefully considered the ways that survey modes may impact the way people answer questions. Talking to a real person is different than answering questions online. But less is known about how individual factors bias participation in surveys in the first place. For example, might personality traits shape your willingness to agree to answer a survey online versus someone who comes to your door? New work from researchers at the University of Michigan and Duke suggests in fact this is the case.
In order to examine the personality traits of survey respondents, the research team used data from the 2012 and 2016 American National Election Studies (ANES). During these two study periods, the ANES ran parallel and face-to-face surveys. In both years, the ANES included the 10-item personality inventory (TIPI), which consists of pairs of items asking respondents to assess their own traits. Based on the responses, respondents build a profile of “the Big Five” personality traits: openness to experience, conscientiousness, extraversion, agreeableness, and emotional stability.
Big Five traits with corresponding TIPI qualities
Openness to experience
Open to new experiences, complex
Anxious, easily upset
Calm, emotionally stable
Researchers were able to compare responses to the TIPI with measures of political predispositions and policy preferences, based on responses to questions on the ANES. These include partisanship, liberal–conservative ideology, issue self-placements, and other measures of political orientation.
Based on these data, the authors found that respondents in the online samples were, on average, less open to experience and more politically conservative on a variety of issues compared to those responding to face-to-face surveys. They also found that the more surveys a respondent completed, the lower they scored on measures of openness. Given that professionalized survey respondents comprise the majority of online survey samples, these results suggest caution for those who would like to generalize results to the population at large. It is not enough to balance samples on simple demographics. Attitudinal and personality based differences might also lead online sample estimates to diverge from the truth.
It is difficult to say whether online survey respondents or face-to-face respondents are more representative of personality traits in the general population. If personality is a factor in whether someone will participate in a survey, that might bias both types of samples. However, the authors note that the data suggest that professional online samples are the outlier. They find “that samples based on fresh cross-sections, both face-to-face and online, yield better population estimates for personality and political attitudes compared to professionalized panels.” While it may be possible to mitigate the potential sampling bias of personality traits, it is important that survey researchers understand the role that personality traits play in professional online samples.
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.
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.