This is part of a series of podcast interviews dedicated to finding out how Americans feel about their country and the upcoming election.
Last Friday I spoke to Robert Griffin, who is the research director at ‘Democracy Fund Voter Study Group’. Which brings together analysts and scholars from across the political spectrum to examine and glean insights from the evolving views of the electorate.
The main takeaways:
- A lot has changed since 2016, especially views on race.
Robert Griffin told me that from the research ‘Voter Study Group’ has delivered, “a lot has shifted” since 2016 and that changing views of Democratic voters can be traced back to as early as 2014. “Some of the biggest changes have actually been occurring on the left”
“On the Democratic side what you’ve largely seen 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 liberalized on immigration. Which might seem a little contradictory simultaneously living through a period in which immigrants in the United States are under threat but it’s also one of the time periods 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. Immigration was one of those areas that hadn’t been front and centre as it became once Trump started making it the centre point of his campaign. And so people started to sort on the basis of that new issue in a way that they hadn’t done as finely in the past. At the same time you had Democrats liberalizing on issues of both race and immigration”
Can Biden avoid the splits in the Democratic Party between progressives and moderates that damaged Clinton in 2016?
“Any comparison between 2016 and 2020 has to start with the sentence that Joe Biden is 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 just be driven by the events that are occurring right now. Things working in [his] favour is that he’s viewed as more moderate and generally speaking moderation its going to mean that you’re going 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 pandemic and race protests and these issues now dominate people’s thoughts on the election.
“We’re living through a really tumultuous period where there are things that Trump is not seen as handling particularly well.”
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. For a Republican Trump is underperforming when it comes to the economy
“Historically the Republican Party is seen as being more competent on economic issues than the Democratic Party. There is this longstanding bias that exists within the American public. That said, in recent polls Biden and Trump are running neck and neck on this issue with Trump maybe sort of squeaking out a little bit of a small lead. They trust Trump more than would trust Biden on the economy. But thinking about that baseline of the American public trust Republicans more, even running neck and neck with Biden on that, it’s not a great position for a Republican candidate by and large.
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 really always been a Republican advantage among older voters. And at least right now, it looks like Biden is actually ahead with these folks. This is a sort of 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 in this case even white Americans, they’re really well distributed geographically for the purposes of electoral representation.”
5. Does this mean age is becoming less of a determinant in how people vote?
“It’s a sort of yes and no thing. On the 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+. Those gaps appear now to be smaller than they were in 2016,2012,2008. If that’s shrinking, that’s actually a big change.
The education gap appears to be growing more prominent. There’s a white education gap that we’ve documented among white voters but we’re also seeing it start to pop out in other racial groups. We’re not a hundred percent sure if it’s going to hold on election day or how long standing of a new dimension that’ll be.”
Why has 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 and higher rate.”
- Growing religiosity gap: “Younger Americans are more likely to be unaffiliated, agnostic, atheist, and 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 and 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 include “The Bush administration, Iraq War, the recession, the popular presidency of Barack Obama, then followed up by Trump. There’s a stretch here going all the way back to 2003 that’s predisposed younger voters to the Democratic Party.”
6. What to watch out for before November:
“The bigger thing to keep our eye on right now 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. “It appears this is yet another issue that has become polarized in ways that could be problematic on election day”.
What we have learned:
- Biden is in a far stronger position than Clinton was in 2016, in holding the Democratic Party together and also how he is viewed by the electorate.
- The dimensions of this election are hugely different to 2016, with Trump hamstrung by the defining issues being his weakest areas: the pandemic and race protests.
- Most significant movement amongst electorate is white older voters turning away from supporting Trump. This should really worry Republicans.
- Elections are as much determined by long-term generational trends than events in the campaign. Democrats look set to benefit from the liberalisation of views over immigration as well as events from as far back as 2003 that have helped set younger voters against the Republican Party.