Elections experts Ken Goldstein, Walter Mebane, and Vincent Hutchings analyzed the results and key lessons of the 2018 Midterm Elections at a round table discussion hosted by the Center for Political Studies on November 13, 2018. A recording of the event is available below.
Ken Goldstein, Professor of Politics at the University of San Francisco
Ken Goldstein began his presentation by noting that there are still races that do not have a clear winner a week after the election, including the Senate and Governor’s races in Florida and the Governor’s race in Georgia.
Leading up to the Midterm Elections, some observers anticipated big wins for the Democratic Party. Goldstein observed that while there was a general lack of exuberance on the part of Democrats on election night, further reflection reveals that there were meaningful shifts in this election. Although the “blue wave” of Democratic wins didn’t materialize, the number of congressional seats changing away from the President’s party was of similar magnitude to past midterm elections.
Goldstein drew attention to the behavior of independent voters. Exit poll data show that independents favored Republican candidates for the House of Representatives in the past two midterm elections, as well as the 2016 General Election. In contrast, independent voters were more likely to vote for Democratic House candidates in 2018 by a margin of 12 percentage points.
Were the polls leading up to the election predictive of the actual outcome? Goldstein said they were fairly accurate, but reminded the audience that many congressional seats were not in play in this election. There are few high-quality state-level polls, which makes forecasting less accurate. More probability-based surveys that weight responses for education and race of the respondent would improve the accuracy of predictions.
Looking at the big picture trends, Goldstein observed that there was a substantial increase in the number of women running for office and winning, as well as large increases in non-white voters. He shared a map showing what the results of the presidential election would look if votes followed the same partisan break-down as the 2018 midterms. However, Goldstein cautioned that presidential campaigns are very different from congressional campaigns, and that a presidential candidate running a nation-wide campaign will face challenges in changing districts, especially in the Midwest.
Walter Mebane, Professor of Political Science and Statistics at the University of Michigan
Next, Walter Mebane presented analyses he has conducted using election forensics. Mebane coined the term “election forensics” to describe a set of statistical methods he developed to determine whether the results of an election accurately reflect the intentions of the electors.
Using Twitter data from the 2016 General Election Mebane analyzed reports of election incidents, including wait times and problems with voting. During the 2016 General Election people used Twitter to report different kinds of election incidents depending on their partisan affiliation. These incidents tended to be reported in replies to people with similar partisan affiliations.
Mebane discovered that there are partisan differences in the types of incidents that Twitter users shared during the 2016 General Election. For example, Republicans were less likely to report a long line to vote, but more likely to report registration problems. A significant conclusion from this finding is that such observational biases and communication silos suggest partisans tended to form different impressions of how the 2016 election went, supported by the divergent reported experiences. These patterns will probably continue in 2018, according to Mebane.
Vincent Hutchings, Professor of Political Science at the University of Michigan
Vincent Hutchings analyzed the shifting demographics of the American electorate. Hutchings presented data showing that Democratic voters have become more racially diverse in the past 20 years, while Republican voters have remained predominately white. Similarly, the Congress elected in 2018 is the most diverse in the history of the United States, but the increase in diversity has been primarily among Democrats elected to Congress.
Reviewing voting data by race, gender, age, marital status, and education, Hutchings notes that each demographic group voted for Democrats at a higher rate than they did in the 2014 Midterm Elections. However, the magnitude of change was different for each group.
Some elections experts wondered whether women would vote for Democrats at higher rates in 2018 in response to the #MeToo movement, the contentious confirmation of Justice Kavanaugh, and controversial remarks about women made by President Trump. Hutchings showed that, among white voters, men and women both shifted toward Democratic candidates, but the gender gap didn’t change. Married men and married women both moved toward the Democratic Party House candidates at roughly equal rates in 2018 compared to 2014. No matter how Hutchings examined gender, he found no evidence that white women behaved differently than comparable men, relative to their preferences four years ago.
Similarly, Hutchings observed meaningful trends related to generation and education. Voters under 30 years old voted for Democrats at a higher rate than voters under 30 in 2014. Democrats also increased gains among college-educated white voters compared to the 2014 Midterm Elections. Hutchings concluded that, while media may focus on gender differences between Democratic and Republican voters, more important differences are emerging along generational and educational lines, and these are trends to watch
On Thursday, November 1, 2018 the Center for Political Studies hosted a round table discussion on the 2018 midterm elections. A panel of three experts presented data and analysis of the most important trends in political attitudes and behavior that they see emerging in the weeks leading up to the elections. A recording of this event is available here.
Ashley Jardina, Assistant Professor of Political Science at Duke University, spoke about the trends in race, gender, and racial attitudes that are emerging in her research. She shared images from political ads and news articles that illustrate the heightened emphasis on race in this election cycle, including displays of the Confederate flag, politicized messages about the caravan of migrants from Central America, and President’s Trump’s recent announcement of plans to end birthright citizenship.
Jardina shared polling data from Gallup and Pew that demonstrate the divide between Democrats and Republicans with regard to their attitudes about immigration. These data show that while 75% of registered Republicans think that illegal immigration is a big problem, only 19% of registered Democrats felt the same way. Data from the American National Election Studies (ANES) also shows partisan differences in support for birthright citizenship, as illustrated in the graphic below.
Identity politics have become an increasingly notable theme in the current election cycle, one which Jardina’s forthcoming book, White Identity Politics, examines. She notes that President Trump appeals to a base of white voters who feel attached to their racial group and possess a sense of racial identity or racial consciousness. She finds that the 2018 midterms are significantly about issues of race and identity, and many Republican candidates are appealing to voters’ attitudes about race and immigration, following President Trump’s lead.
Next, Brendan Nyhan, Professor of Public Policy at the University of Michigan Ford School of Public Policy and Faculty Associate at the Center for Political Studies, discussed the challenges of forecasting the outcome of the elections, and the role of misinformation in campaigns.
Nyhan began his talk by noting that many Americans have difficulty interpreting polls, and may be surprised by the actual outcomes. Rather than dwelling on predictions, he turned instead to three broader questions:
What is the state of U.S. democracy in 2018?
To what extent is Trump changing the Republican Party?
What role do conspiracy theories and misinformation now play in our democracy?
Experts see a downturn in quality of U.S. democracy, according to data presented by Nyhan (see graph below). He notes that this trend is consistent with what many observe in the news, and reflects concerns about interference in investigations and voting rights, and limitations on the power of government. This election is not a referendum on these issues, says Nyhan, but this is an important time to be aware of the potential erosion of democracy.
Nyhan notes that President Trump has increasingly fallen in line with the Republican party when it comes to accomplishing long-standing aspects of the party agenda, including passing tax cuts and appointing conservative judges. However, he also argues that President Trump appears to be pivoting the Republican party toward ethnonationalism in a way that may outlast his presidency. Policies like separating the children of asylum seekers from their parents are moving ideas that were once at the fringe to the center of the Republican party.
Whereas the Republican party has focused strongly on identity issues leading up to the midterm elections, the Democratic party has campaigned largely on the issue of health care. Nyhan notes that there has been a notable shift in the tone of racial language in the campaigns, with rhetoric about the campaign of migrants stoking racial fears. He concludes that voters should be shocked by the explicit fear mongering presented by campaigns in this election cycle.
Stuart Soroka, Professor of Communication Studies and Professor of Political Science and Faculty Associate at the Center for Political Studies, presented a content analysis from open-ended survey responses and from news coverage for the last two months.
He showed results of surveys conducted in collaboration with SurveyMonkey, the Washington Post, and researchers affiliated with the S3MC project. These nationally-representative surveys asked, “If the election for the US House of Representatives were held today, would you vote?” and then asked “Why?” The open-ended responses to “Why?” were analyzed to reveal differences behind the reasons that Democrats and Republicans are making their choices on election day. Distinguishing words, words that are most uniquely linked to Democrats or Republicans, are shown in the graphic below. Soroka notes that Democrats frequently mention Republicans in their response, and Republicans frequently mention Democrats, suggesting that voters from each party are strongly motivated to vote against the opposing party.
Soroka also presented an analysis of newspaper content, including all articles mentioning “election” or “campaign” from August through the end of October during midterm election years 2006-2018, in 17 major newspapers archived in Lexis-Nexis. This amounts to approximately 20,000 articles and between 35-70,000 individual sentences (that do not mention polls), coded for sentiment using the Lexicoder Sentiment Dictionary. In the 2018 data, he finds a strong relationship between the predicted advantage for Democrats and negative news sentiment. Soroka warns that he is not arguing that news is affecting attitudes, but that news moves along with political attitudes. Based on his analysis of these data from newspapers, Soroka concludes that the nature of media coverage is going through dramatic changes because of the way the press report on President Trump.