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.
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.
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.
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.”