To say that this has been a crazy year in politics is a laugh-out-loud understatement. Last summer media experts all but assured voters of a sleepy matchup between Jeb Bush and Hillary Clinton. A year later Donald Trump has secured the Republican nomination after besting 16 well-funded, sharp-elbowed GOP rivals. Meanwhile, Clinton faced a tougher challenge from self-proclaimed socialist Bernie Sanders than anyone could have predicted. So what’s going on? We turn to the experts in Vanderbilt’s renowned political science department for insight not only into this race, but also into the future of U.S. politics itself.
Donald Trump will never become the 2016 Republican nominee for president.
That narrative had become such an article of faith in the political press last year that Washington Post columnist Dana Milbank promised in October to eat his own newspaper column if such an unthinkable scenario came to pass. Seven months later Milbank was washing down a lightly sautéed pile of newsprint with a selection of Trump-brand wines on the same day the New York businessman met with House Speaker Paul Ryan in an effort to unify the party.
Perhaps people like Milbank should have spent less time making attention-grabbing promises and more time studying the work of Vanderbilt’s Marc Hetherington, professor of political science, and Cindy Kam, the William R. Kenan Jr. Professor of Political Science. In 2009 both published books (separately) that predicted the viability of a candidate like Trump.
Hetherington and co-author Jonathan Weiler, a political scientist at the University of North Carolina, identified a new class of voters increasingly focused on law and order in their book, Authoritarianism and Polarization in American Politics (Cambridge University Press).
Along similar lines, Kam and co-author Donald Kinder of the University of Michigan argued in their book, Us Against Them: Ethnocentric Foundations of American Opinion (University of Chicago Press), that a growing propensity among U.S. voters to carve up the world into starkly divided racial, ethnic and cultural groups would have a significant impact on elections.
While the Vanderbilt professors took different research approaches, their work highlights two key elements of the 2016 race for president. The first is that a hardening of racial attitudes among white voters has translated into stronger support for Trump than many expected. The second is that these shifting views often don’t show up in traditional polls asking about issues or candidates directly.
Hetherington and Weiler, for example, uncovered authoritarianism voters not by geography, race, income, or any other typical demographic identifiers, but rather by their parenting style. Some of the seemingly innocuous survey questions included:
- Would you rather your children be independent or respect their elders?
- Would you rather your children be obedient or self-reliant?
- Would you rather your children be curious or have good manners?
“As crazy as it sounds, these parenting questions seem to work well in identifying people who are more authoritarian,” Hetherington says. “The answers to these questions are highly predictive of whether people support torture, oppose gay rights, have negative attitudes about racial and ethnic minorities, and a range of other politically relevant topics.”
Kam says that while she’s surprised Trump has continued to gain support despite being so outspoken about his views, he and his supporters offer a textbook case of ethnocentric rhetoric. “Anytime he speaks, it’s usually about us versus them,” she says, noting his proposals for building a wall along the Mexican border and banning Muslims from the U.S.
At their root, Hetherington and Kam both say their findings point to rising levels of anger and fear among U.S. voters. “But the thing that puzzles me is, Why now?” Hetherington asks.
Compared to the Cold War era when schoolchildren were trained to duck beneath their desks as the threat of nuclear war loomed, the United States is by many measures far more peaceful and secure today. One factor that may be generating outsized anxiety in this group, Hetherington suggests, is the rise of conservative media during the past 20 years.
“Trump’s advantage is the amount of anger, fear and discontent that people are experiencing. This is exactly what Fox News and Rush Limbaugh and Glenn Beck have been giving us,” he says. “The Republicans can’t turn off the switch. They’ve opened Pandora’s box.”
Are these forces enough to propel Trump to victory this fall? Kam says probably not. “While ethnocentrism may have helped Trump seal the Republican primary nomination, the dynamics will differ in the general election.” Plus, she adds that the people who disagree with his views will emerge as a more potent force after the primaries. “The general election will give voice to those who take offense at Trump’s ethnocentric rhetoric. Sometimes voting against someone is a much more powerful motivator than voting for.”
Hillary Clinton, Carly Fiorina, and other women vying for political office this year have had to battle not only the usual election hurdles, but also a deep-seated psychological bias that favors male candidates over females—even when voters express feminist views or are women themselves.
“The average American struggles to associate women with leadership words,” says Cecilia Hyunjung Mo, assistant professor of political science and associate professor of public policy and education, talking about her research on gender bias among voters.
To measure this bias—the rapid instincts that emerge from primitive parts of the brain—Mo used the Implicit Association Test (IAT), a well-known tool that has been used regularly within academia and industry to help identify hidden stereotypes. “We’ve seen that this test seems to predict real-life behavior like vote choice, medical recommendations by physicians and hiring decisions,” Mo says.
Mo’s recent study in this area found that the people who had difficulty associating women candidates with leadership traits also tended to pick men from a selection of two equally qualified fictional candidates, even as participants said they would be happy to have a woman as president.
However, when the female candidate was much more qualified than her opponent, those who viewed themselves as more egalitarian could suppress their ingrained gender bias.
“Those who are overtly gender-neutral and have unacknowledged or unintended implicit prejudices against women will override their implicit bias and support the female candidates if she is supremely more qualified than her male opponent,” Mo explains. “However, no such override occurs among those with an explicit prejudice.”
Unfortunately, Mo says, if female candidates must be visibly more qualified than male candidates in order to win, then bias against women may not become a thing of the past. The good news, she says, is that voters are malleable enough to recognize and move past their ingrained biases.
“People can change and learn,” she says. “But that’s not going to happen if women don’t put themselves out there and run for office, providing examples of what a woman leader can look like. Those examples need to be created so that people become much more comfortable with models of a leader as gender-neutral. It’s only then that the discussions become more about policy than the traits of a female.”
As for Hillary Clinton’s status as the first female major-party presidential candidate, Mo says, “This is historic. All the research we’ve done has been of hypothetical candidates. So I’m also watching this with interest because we’ll be able to start seeing if the work we’ve done and the things we’ve studied in laboratories are actually going to pan out on the national stage.”
For the better part of 2016, America’s youth has been feeling (and fueling) “The Bern” of U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders’ surprisingly resonant presidential campaign. Huge crowds cheering the candidate’s talk of a $15-per-hour minimum wage, free college tuition and universal health care signaled to many an unexpected leftward shift in the Democratic Party, after years of walking a centrist tightrope.
But enthusiasm for Sanders is not rooted in his policy positions, says Larry Bartels, the May Werthan Shayne Professor of Public Policy and Social Science and a co-director of Vanderbilt’s Center for the Study of Democratic Institutions.
“Decades of social–scientific evidence show that voting behavior is primarily a product of inherited partisan loyalties, social identities and symbolic attachments,” Bartels wrote in a New York Times opinion piece in May with his former Princeton colleague Christopher Achen. “Over time, engaged citizens may construct policy preferences and ideologies that rationalize their choices, but those issues are seldom fundamental.”
Bartels and Achen debunk what they call a “folk theory” of democracy—the wistful notion that citizens carefully weigh policy decisions and in turn steer government with their votes—in their new book, Democracy for Realists: Why Elections Do Not Produce Responsive Government (2016, Princeton University Press). Instead, the co-authors show that easily swayed voters often alter their policy views to match their own self-perceptions.
It’s not just personally identifying with a particular candidate or group that drives opinions. In 2002, Bartels and Achen presented a pioneering study that demonstrated how a series of shark attacks in New Jersey ended up costing incumbent president Woodrow Wilson votes in the 1916 election. The attacks had nothing to do with politics, but they did spark a wave of public panic, which then affected voter behavior. They applied the same research methods and found that droughts and floods may have cost Al Gore as many as 2.8 million votes in his contested race against George W. Bush in 2000.
Bartels also has investigated why opinion surveys show unease about growing income inequality, but also enthusiastic support for politicians and policies that have contributed to that trend. In his award-winning book, Unequal Democracy: The Political Economy of the New Gilded Age (2008, Princeton University Press), he examined the politics of the Bush tax cuts of 2001 and 2003, the long-term erosion of the minimum wage, and other policies leading to inequality.
Looking specifically at the campaign to repeal the estate tax, Bartels found widespread public support for a policy change that would enrich a thin sliver of America’s wealthiest families. Even people who said they regretted the growing gap between rich and poor—and that the rich should shoulder a greater tax burden—overwhelmingly supported estate tax repeal.
Bartels attributed that surprising support, in part, to what he refers to as “unenlightened self-interest.” “People who thought they were asked to pay too much in federal income taxes were substantially more likely to support repealing the estate tax,” he wrote, “despite the fact that the vast majority of them never have been or would be subject to the tax.”
Later this year the Russell Sage Foundation and Princeton University Press will publish a revised and expanded edition of the book, with new chapters about the Great Recession and the politics of inequality in the Obama era.
As Bartels and Achen pointed out in their New York Times op-ed, the founding fathers did not envision a direct, “by the people” democracy. Rather, that was an article of faith that took hold after Abraham Lincoln’s presidency.
By now, however, the notion of direct democracy has become as firmly ingrained in the American political psyche as the belief that most voters act in their own self-interest. It just so happens that both concepts are wrong.
In the silly season of presidential politics, when the public dissects and debates every twitch of the campaigns, opinion polls are almost a daily occurrence. There are so many, and they’re of such varying quality, that it’s hard to keep them all straight—or give them much credence.
But John Geer, vice provost for academic and strategic affairs and the Gertrude Conaway Vanderbilt Professor of Political Science, and Josh Clinton, the Abby and Jon Winkelried Professor of Political Science, have made it a mission to advance polling methodology. Both professors serve as co-directors of Vanderbilt’s Center for the Study of Democratic Institutions.
In 2011 the pair launched the Vanderbilt Poll, using it simultaneously as a kind of lab to hone their statistical tools as well as to provide an accurate snapshot of the mood of Tennessee (and Nashville) voters on a range of local, state and national topics. The most recent Vanderbilt Poll, in May, reported that Donald Trump held a nine-percentage-point lead over Hillary Clinton among registered Tennessee voters.
For a state that handed Trump a solid primary victory in March—and one that has historically been a stronghold for Republican presidential candidates—his 44 to 35 percent showing in the poll indicated a possible softening in his base of support in Tennessee. It’s also notable that 13 percent of state voters remain undecided or said they would not vote for either candidate.
“The state is more competitive than we thought it would be,” Geer said at the time of the poll’s release.
The poll itself is designed to reach a demographically balanced group of registered Tennessee voters using both landlines and cellphones. To guard against bias in the poll’s questions and methodology, Geer and Clinton rely on a bipartisan advisory board whose 11 members include people like Samar Ali, BS’03, JD’06, a former international security adviser to the Obama administration, and longtime Republican strategist Chip Saltsman.
“Polling is not always neat and clean,” Clinton says. “It’s not a complete articulation of what voters are thinking, but it’s a useful starting point and should be part of the conversation.”
Beyond the work Geer and Clinton are doing together with the Vanderbilt Poll, each is engaged in separate projects designed to gauge voter attitudes in this election cycle.
In April, Geer teamed up with UCLA political scientist Lynn Vavreck to launch SpotCheck, a website that rates political advertisements using internet-based surveys. “We now can present evidence as opposed to speculation about the impact of a political spot,” Geer says. “That will be invaluable as this presidential campaign goes forward.”
Each week SpotCheck gathers data from a representative sample of 1,000 people randomly assigned to watch and rate two advertisements selected by Geer and Vavreck. The people selected to watch the ads click a bell when they are pleased with what they see or hear, or they click a buzzer when they don’t like something. The SpotCheck site is open to the public and includes the ads selected for SpotCheck, their rankings among viewer panels, reactions from those selected to watch, and brief assessments from experts.
Meanwhile, Josh Clinton has been working since 2010 as an election analyst for NBC News and has continued to do so during the current election cycle. In addition to helping interpret NBC News poll results throughout the primaries and general campaigns, he often can be seen working in the studio—or being interviewed—on election nights.
“Working with NBC News,” Clinton said when he was tapped as an analyst, “is a wonderful opportunity to apply my academic knowledge to analyze one of the most important ways that citizens interact with their government.”
After a terrorist attack like the one in Orlando in June—during which the gunman pledged his allegiance to the leader of ISIS in a 911 call—Republican candidates who are perceived as tough on terrorism often benefit in the polls. Democrats, particularly women running for office, tend to fare worse.
But that script has become less clear in the wake of the June 12 massacre at a gay nightclub that left 49 people dead and 53 others injured, says Elizabeth Zechmeister, professor of political science and co-author of Democracy at Risk: How Terrorist Threats Affect the Public (2009, University of Chicago Press) with Jennifer L. Merolla at the University of California–Riverside.
“Terrorist threats induce a range of negative emotions in individuals, including both fear and anger,” says Zechmeister, who also is co-director of Vanderbilt’s Latin American Public Opinion Project. “People tend to cope with those emotions by looking for a strong leader who can restore a feeling of control, power and hope, and by advocating for assertive reactions to the threat.”
Traditionally, the public has tended to show a bias toward male, Republican leaders in times of threat, she says, while both women and the Democratic Party have been perceived as weaker on national security issues. For former U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, however, that conventional wisdom does not appear to hold true.
“First, our research showing a gender bias against female leaders in times of terrorist threats holds only for Democratic females who do not have a record of visible experience in the national security domain,” Zechmeister says. “Clinton has such experience, having served as secretary of state. We, in fact, conducted a study in 2012 that looked specifically at the public’s view of Hillary Clinton, and we found that evaluations of her by the public were not affected by an increase in the salience of terrorist threat.
“Second, Trump is a party outsider, so it is not clear that he will receive the same degree of a boost that a more conventional Republican leader might.”
Trump’s blunt language and bellicose policy proposals may please his most devoted followers, she says, but others might question such tactics.
“Throughout the campaign Donald Trump has been calling for radical, aggressive and divisive policies to combat the threat of terrorism, including banning immigration from countries where there is a proven history of terrorism and using torture against suspected terrorists or even killing their families,” Zechmeister says. “He is playing into the type of policies that individuals angry about terrorism are likely to be drawn to.”
The Clinton campaign has seized on Trump’s pronouncements, suggesting that his policy proposals could end up boosting recruitment into terrorist cells. Clinton has called for coordination with U.S. partners in the Middle East and a more measured, steady response to the threat of terrorism. Zechmeister’s research finds that individuals often are motivated toward international engagement when concerned about terrorism.
“It is important to keep in mind that we live in an information-rich, dynamic world and the voting public tends to have a very short memory,” Zechmeister says. “While it’s easy to say that the tragedy in Orlando is affecting considerations that individuals are bringing to bear in their evaluations of the candidates now, it would be a stretch to consider this act of terrorism to be decisive for the election.”