Last Friday I spoke to Robert Griffin, the research director at ‘Democracy Fund Voter Study Group’. This brings together analysts and scholars from across the political spectrum to examine and deliver insights from the evolving views of the electorate.
The main takeaways:
1. A lot ‘has shifted since 2016’
‘Some of the biggest changes have actually been occurring on the left’
‘On the Democratic side is a change in racial attitudes that seemed to start around 2014/2015, where a large number of Democrats identify with more liberal attitudes towards race. Also in some ways as a result of Trump himself, Democrats have liberalised on immigration. We are simultaneously living through a period in which immigrants in the US are under threat but it’s also a time in American politics where we’re at a high point for liberal attitudes about immigration. It seems contradictory but people are reacting to the lived example of the Trump administration’.
Is this down to the Democrats gaining new voters already predisposed to those views, or have voters changed their minds on the issue?
‘It’s a little bit of both. The American public have a lot of opinions about a lot of different things, but what happens with large political campaigns/events is they’re clarifying moments in which elected officials and events tell people what the salient dimensions of the time that we live in [are]. And once that salience is made apparent to the American public, they start to sort themselves on the basis of that dimension. Once Trump started making it the centre point of his campaign, people started to sort on the basis of that new issue in a way that they hadn’t done as finely in the past’.
Can Biden avoid the splits in the Democratic Party between progressives and moderates that damaged Clinton in 2016?
‘Any comparison has to start with Joe Biden doing better in the polls. Whether that’s the result of Biden holding the coalition together, that’s kind of a different question. What would happen if there was a different Democrat in place of Biden? It’s a little uncertain. Some of this could be driven by events that are occurring. Things working in [his] favour is that he’s viewed as more moderate, and generally speaking moderation means that you’re going to do a little better in the polls at a national level. Although some of his lead appears to be driven by a judgement of the incumbent’.
2. Trump has lost support over key issues that now dominate voters’ minds
The Pandemic: At the ‘start, the American public was willing to give Trump a lot of leeway and good faith. But then it declined almost immediately, and it’s been declining since then.
Race Protests: ‘Trump was not seen as handling these particularly well, nor has he ever been seen as handling race relations in the United States or the broader set of issues around that particularly well.
‘I think there’s this bigger political environment that we exist in where Trump had always had low approval ratings, but then these two issues have really dominated how people start to conceptualize what this election is supposed to be about — and they are two issues Trump is not doing particularly well on’.
3. Trump is underperforming on the economy
‘Historically the Republican Party is seen as more competent on economic issues than the Democrats. In recent polls Biden and Trump are running neck and neck on this issue, or Trump has a slight lead. But thinking about that baseline even running neck and neck, it’s not a great position for a Republican candidate.
4. One of the biggest surprises we are seeing is older voters moving away from Trump
‘It seems to be older voters and whiter voters, relative to support levels from 2016, that are turning away from Trump. For the last 20 years or so, there’s always been a Republican advantage among older voters. At least right now, it looks like Biden is actually ahead with these folks. This is a sea change in American politics if it holds on election day’.
This can have greater impact on the electoral college than other demographic groups which are more geographically concentrated. ‘Once you’re talking about age distribution or white Americans, they’re really well distributed’.
5. Is age becoming less significant?
‘It’s a yes and no thing. On the one hand if age is becoming less of a determinant that’s actually a big change from the last couple of election cycles. When there were big gaps between 18-29 and 65 plus. Those gaps appear now to be smaller than they were in 2016,2012,2008.
‘The education gap appears to be growing more prominent. There’s an education gap that we’ve documented among white voters but we’re also seeing it in other racial groups. We’re not a hundred percent sure if it will hold on election day or how long standing that’ll be’.
Why had the age gap increased over the last two decades?
- Compositional Change: ‘The types of people that inhabit the 18-29 age range have changed. They are more racially diverse. Tend to be educated at a higher rate.
- Growing religiosity gap: ‘Younger Americans are more likely to be unaffiliated, agnostic, atheist — all these things are predictive of vote choice.
- Generational Differences: ‘Even if cohorts look the same, they are different because of the different political environments they were raised in between 18-30. The political events that occur then leave an indelible mark to how people think about the world and the types of political attachments they have’. These events included, ‘The Bush administration, Iraq War, the recession, the popular presidency of Barack Obama, then followed up by Trump. There’s a stretch going all the way back to 2003 that’s predisposed younger voters to the Democratic Party’.
6. What to watch out for
‘[This] is to do with how the election is going to roll out. Especially given that so many people are going to be trying to vote by mail this election cycle’. There are massive differences between Democrats and Republicans over how they are going to vote. ‘This is yet another issue that has become polarised in ways that could be problematic on election day’.