Nearly a quarter-century after James Carville’s famous quip that “it’s the economy, stupid,” not much appears to have changed for the electorate.
Results from Dickinson College’s Nov. 8 exit poll of Cumberland County voters, released last week, show that one’s economic experience — or rather, perception of that experience — is by far the best predictor of voting preference.
Of Cumberland County voters who believed the economy was in worse shape as compared to several years ago, 86 percent voted for Trump. Of those who viewed the economy favorably, 89 percent voted for Clinton.
But what matters here is not the objective experience, by any quantifiable financial measure, but rather the perception.
“Increasingly, we see evidence to suggest that this relationship works backward as well,” said Sarah Niebler, a political science professor at Dickinson College. “You decide you’re going to vote for Trump, and then you decide the economy is poor in order to reinforce what he says. Or you decide you’re going to vote for Clinton, and then you start to believe the economy is doing well in order to justify it.”
Students from two of Niebler’s fall political science courses surveyed a grand total of 482 county residents at a variety of polling places on Election Day, asking a number of questions about policy and the state of the nation.
“We don’t use this exit poll to predict how Cumberland County is going to vote on election night, that’s not the goal,” Niebler said. “The goal is to look at these bi-variates where we look at two variables and say, ‘does believing x correlate to believing y?’”
As with any survey, the most difficult part is getting a representative portion of the population.
For Niebler and her students, the issue was that Cumberland County splits about 60-40 Republican-to-Democrat in its voting preferences. But students actually collected more responses from those who had voted Democrat, which meant that these answers had to be weighted down, and Republican responses weighted up, in order to create a representative result for the county as a whole.
“The reality is that I’m working with student interviewers, who are young, and other young people are more likely to talk to them, and younger people tend to skew more Democratic,” Niebler said.
But even adjusting Republican trends upward to match the county’s electorate, the economy was by far Cumberland’s greatest concern, with 29.7 percent of the population saying that it was the most important factor in deciding who to vote for in the presidential election. National security and terrorism was a distant second at 10.1 percent.
Even more interesting, Niebler’s students found that the bulk of Cumberland County’s population had a more moderate view regarding concrete policy proposals, even adjusting for the fact that more of them voted for Trump than were willing to be interviewed.
Only 16.2 percent of Cumberland’s population supports banning immigrants of Muslim faith, even though Trump campaigned heavily on such a proposal.
Likewise, 49.5 percent of county voters support raising the minimum wage, and 50.5 percent support stricter gun laws — both stances which are typically associated with more liberal politics.
“I was surprised by that, and again, it’s not just because we got more Democrats to talk,” Niebler said. “Through all those data lines, we were taking into account the percentage of Republican responses and adjusting.”
Dickinson’s data seems to confirm a phenomenon that has gotten a fair amount of attention, at least anecdotally, for some time — the idea that people will vote a certain way in order to reinforce their own identity as belonging to a certain ‘team,’ regardless of whether they actually agree with any of the team’s policies.
“I think it’s increasingly true in the 21st century, as our politics have gotten more polarized, that there is a tendency to say ‘I stay with my group even if they nominate someone I don’t like,’” Niebler said, “which we saw really clearly in this election, with neither party actually liking their candidate all that much, but still voting for them.”
Straight-ticket voting seems to be increasing, even as Americans dislike their political parties at historic levels. Niebler found that 88 percent of county voters cast their ballot for the same party in the presidential, senate, and house races.
Change in narrative
The increasing amount of evidence like that produced by Niebler and her students throws a bit of a wrench into the traditional narrative for political science classes.
The theory of Western democracy is typically taught around the idea of institutions – meaning a citizenry that decides what the mechanisms of power should be, and is confident in the processes they have established regardless of who is in control of those mechanisms at any given time.
But increasingly, that level of civic investment seems to take second place to a concern over whose team gets to dole out the spoils.
“We like to imagine that in a democracy, we can separate the institutions from the polices, but I don’t’ see us doing that as much anymore,” Niebler said.
Obama’s expansion of presidential power over the last eight years has turned into a philosophical flash point for that discussion, Niebler noted.
“If I’m a Democrat, I want to increase presidential power under Obama and decrease it under Trump because I’m afraid I won’t like what he’ll do,” Niebler said. “If I’m a Republican, I want to decrease power under Obama and increase it once someone from my group takes over.”
That’s not how it’s supposed to work.
“I tell my students that we should be able to make arguments about presidential power regardless of who’s in office,” Niebler said. “That’s an institution discussion of what we believe we want the presidency to be. But I think that vast majority of us are not thinking that way because we’re so ingrained in our team winning and we’re not as interested in policy.”