Pew Study: In The Midterm U.S. House Elections, Policies Took a Backseat to Partisanship

Shortly after the U.S. midterm elections last month, the Pew Research Center conducted a survey of U.S. adults from November 7th – 13th to find out what voters would say about why they voted for one party’s candidate over another. The interesting thing about this survey is that the question was completely open-ended.

You might think this would lead to a wide variety of answers, but the Pew Research Center got mostly the same answers back from a substantial percentage of voters.

The question Pew asked was:

“What’s the main reason you voted for the _____ Party’s candidate for Congress?”

Regardless of whether the respondent was a Democrat or a Republican, the most common answer to this open ended question was support for the party of the candidate the respondent voted for, opposition to the other major party, support for President Donald Trump, or opposition to the president.

For those who picked the Democratic candidate in a U.S. House race in last month’s elections:

“36% of those who voted for the Democratic candidate in their district cited opposition to President Donald Trump, the Republican Party or the GOP’s candidate as the main reason for their vote – about the same share (37%) as said they were motivated primarily by support for their own party or party’s candidate.”

For those who picked the Republican U.S. House candidate:

“47% of Republican voters mentioned support of the GOP, Trump or the Republican candidate in their district, while fewer (28%) mentioned opposition to the Democratic Party or Democratic candidates.”

Conspicuously absent from their answers however, was any mention of policies, issues, or even financies, i.e. “The Economy, Stupid.”

(The brilliant campaign slogan from the mind of Mr. James Carville, the architect of Bill Clinton’s surprise 1992 presidential victory, but it does hurt my feelings every time.)

Remember, voters were not confined to a limited number of multiple choice answers given to them by the researchers at Pew, but rather given a blank slate to answer whatever was on their mind.

Fewer than 1 in 5 (17%) of voters who picked a Republican for the U.S. House in November mentioned any public policy as factoring into their voting decision, and markedly even fewer Democrats– fewer than 1 in 10 (9%) did so in this post election survey.

Ten percent of voters who cast a ballot for the Republican House candidate in 2018 mentioned the economy, and five percent of those who went with the Democrat for the U.S House in their district mentioned health care in their responses.

The results appear to show a highly partisan, polarized electorate, so much so that even the substantive issues ostensibly underlying the partisan divide do not seem to matter so much as the fight itself between two competing political brands.

Is this a complete picture of the electorate? Or at least an accurate snapshot of the electorate on election day in 2018?

These are tough questions to answer. One aspect of this survey worth pointing out is that the question itself, while open ended, may bias the results toward a partisan answer because of the way the question is phrased, putting emphasis on parties: “What’s the main reason you voted for the _____ Party’s candidate for Congress?”

I would be curious to know what the respondents would have said next, if the surveyor had been instructed to follow up with any answers citing support of one party or opposition to other, using verbiage something like: “So we understand already that you supported this party (or opposed the other) in the election– our question is: Why? What’s the main reason that you did?”

It would also be interesting to see how the survey results may have differed if the original question had not mentioned party, and had been phrased something like: “Who did you vote for in the U.S. House election? What’s the main reason you voted for them?”

The answers may have panned similarly to the way they did even with these adjustments. It seemed to me, watching the campaigns very closely this year, that the mainstream press, political pundits, and social media rarely focused on policies, and when they did, usually gave a vague impression, about a general issue, with little detailed policy discussion. Instead, the spectacle of the fight, the battle between the forces of light (us, our party) and the forces of darkness (them, their party) seemed to predominate.

So for independents who are concerned about hyper-partisanship and its pernicious effects on our body politic and society, engaging the public in more detailed, fact-based policy discussions about what specific actions politicians have taken and what their effects on the world are, may be a vital element of the remedy to snap people out of the manufactured narratives of the hyper-partisan reality tunnel.