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

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

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

 

The history and significance of the ANES

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

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

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

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

Recent data trends

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The value of the ANES

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

Discussing Election Day and Vote by Mail with Michael Traugott

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

A transcript of Michael Traugott’s remarks follows.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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