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MSU IPPSR scholars analyze and reflect on the November election

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State of the State is the monthly roundup of policy and research for the state of Michigan from the Institute for Public Policy Research at Michigan State University. The recent national election is the topic on this episode. Providing the analysis are Arnold Weinfeld, associate director for the institute, institute director Dr. Matt Grossman, and MSU economist Dr. Charlie Ballard.

“Michigan did go against Donald Trump and swung toward the Democrats, but not by much and not by as much as the polls were expecting,” Grossmann says. “We again saw a polling error in the same direction in very similar states from 2016, but of course, with a different electoral result that was mainly driven by white voters with a college degree in the suburbs and in West Michigan and the Traverse City area. Other than that, a lot of people voted the same way. We continue to find pretty big divides between elites and the public, especially on the Republican side where the Republican base is much more culturally conservative and much more favorable toward Donald Trump. And they still have views associated with racial resentment and white identity that are quite different than the political elite.”

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Arnold Weinfeld

“The biggest issue in this election was Donald Trump,” adds Ballard. “And that's really often true when somebody is running for a second term as President. The election becomes a substantial referendum on whether you want this person to continue in office. And what we saw was that Trump once again outperformed the polls. The other thing that I think is quite interesting is that Republicans outperformed Trump.

“He may have outperformed the polls, but not enough to win the election and Joe Biden's margin in the popular vote is substantially more than Hillary Clinton's margin in the popular vote four years ago. But the Democratic blue wave that some people have been thinking would happen really did not happen. Democrats actually lost seats in the House of Representatives. Take Susan Collins of Maine for instance. The Republican out polled Donald Trump in her state by double digits and she won re-election easily. And so, what we're seeing is that the nation and to a substantial extent, Michigan does not reject every element of the Republican agenda. We have people who are moderate to conservative on many issues, but I think there was at least something of a rejection of the very divisive tone that Donald Trump has brought to the office.”

“Charley’s right,” adds Grossmann. “Polls were off even more overall in House elections and state legislative elections and incentive elections than they were in the presidential vote. Republicans actually won the national House vote in 2016 by one point. So Donald Trump actually underperformed the generic Republican margin twice in 2016 and 2020. This time, it resulted in more gains for Republicans. It looks like what happened is that the new voters that Donald Trump brought in 2016, who at the time were Trump maybe only or mostly voters who didn't necessarily vote Democrat and Republican down the line, this time did vote Republican down the line, including for state legislature. And the new Biden voters that were previous Trump voters or previous non or third party voters did not necessarily also vote Democrat in other offices.

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Charley Ballard

“I think that sort of pattern explains the discrepancy this time. And it is got to be troubling for Democrats moving forward if those continue because 2022 is already likely to be an election where the party out of the presidency does better. And it would only take a normal presidential slot midterm slump of about one third of the normal size for Republicans to take back over The US House of Representatives.”

“We saw some strange bedfellows in various places which I think will force both Democrats and Republicans to reevaluate where they go on certain issues in the future,” adds Ballard. “You can't find a more blue state than California, and there was a ballot initiative to bring back Affirmative action in California. It failed; it wasn't even close.

“Meanwhile, Florida, which voted for Trump despite polls suggesting the opposite easily passed a ballot initiative to substantially increase the minimum wage, which doesn't sound like traditional Republican orthodoxy. When you put those things together with the ongoing demographic shifts, we've got real questions that I don't think we yet know the answers to about what will the Republican party be post-Trump if it ever gets to be post-Trump. And where will the Democrats go? I think the progressive and moderate wings of the Democratic party will have some difficult conversations going forward.”

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Matt Grossmann

“The one oddity is going into the election we were thinking this diversifying country was going to be hard for Republicans to maintain competition in and we actually saw racial depolarization,” Grossmann says. “It was actually white voters who were more likely to move against Republicans. And they either did not lose ground, or in some cases gained ground, among Hispanic and Asian constituencies. It will be interesting to look forward to see if the diversifying country does mean a move toward Democrats or whether Republicans are able to find ways to compete.”

The group discusses another tough election season for the accuracy many polls and what this election means for tweaking survey methodology. And they discuss the potential impact of redistricting on future elections.

“These seemingly arcane debates about survey methodology really matter if it's the case that there were people who said they were voting for third party but actually voted for Trump,” Grossmann adds. “It’s one thing if we got the turnout wrong. But if we have systematically been underestimating support among Republican voters for the last year, that matters for everything else. It matters for our estimates of how many people are following COVID restrictions, and it matters for the approval of the governor. All of those things if the problem is the sampling bias, which it very well could be, and some people being less likely to respond to polls, then it matters for all of our other estimates. Even the unemployment rate. Everything depends on getting a good sample of the public when we're making these determinations.”

“It's a real challenge and the inaccurate polls in my view can sometimes actually change the outcome of an election,” continues Ballard. “Polling is very difficult because there are a lot of people who are reluctant to respond to surveys. I think that we'll continue to tweak our methodology, try to find what ways we can to re-weight the sample and try to find ways we can locate certain demographics who are very reluctant to get involved in surveys. But I'm not sure that polls are dead yet.

“We’re observing an increasing segregation by political preference. And if a population is highly segregated geographically, it's difficult to get really competitive districts. Because if all the Republicans are in one district and all the Democrats are in another district, you're going to have districts that are not very competitive. The unfortunate by-product of that is that if you don't have a whole lot of districts where it's really competitive and where a winner has to appeal to moderates and even to the other party, then you're likely to get a Legislature or a Congress that's at least as polarized as the general public and even maybe more polarized.”

“We are actually seeing continued signs that moderates do better than those at the ideological extremes in general elections,” concludes Grossmann.  “Charley mentioned Susan Collins. We also had an example where Elissa Slotkin outperformed her district, which voted for Trump by four points. So there are continued examples that that's true. There's also some positive trends for diversity in the Republican party. There'll be more Republican women than ever in the US house. Almost all of the Republicans that won in swing districts are either women or racial minorities. That's a positive diversifying trend for the Republican party. I think two pro-choice Republicans got elected to the US house. There may be some signs that the parties are starting to recognize that, at least in these swing districts, it's useful to put up people who can appeal to the other side.”

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