Q&A: Political science professor John Aldrich on the election process

John Aldrich, who specializes in American politics and behavior, is Pfizer-Pratt University Professor of political science, a former president of the American Political Science Association, and a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. 

The common view is that high turnout favors Democrats. With the recent election, has that assumption been forever overturned?

There’s a Democratic advantage in that more in the electorate favor [that] party. Even so, Democrats draw disproportionately from those who vote at lower than typical rates, such as minorities, the disadvantaged, and the young. But the Democrats have been building support among the college-educated, who are among the most likely to vote. Over a decade or so, the Republicans have built increasing support among rural whites and others. Those groups also are somewhat less likely to vote. That historical reality helps explain Trump’s focus on energizing his base, which is all about moving traditional nonvoters into becoming voters.

Thus, the balance between the two parties in turnout is evening out; this was especially evident in 2016 and 2020. However, I would say that nothing in electoral politics is forever. If trends continue, the Democrats once again might become the party with higher expected turnout.

Is one takeaway from the election that voters now resist crossing party lines as they consider candidates for office?

This election looks like a very strong affirmation of party-line voting. It was not just Trump who outperformed expectations; it was Republican candidates for the Senate, House, and state legislatures, up and down the ballot. The thickening and deepening of the partisan divide has been under way for a long time now, and each election extends that partisan cleavage more. Many call this the rise of identity politics, but it is even more than that. It is identity politics reinforced by issues, ideologies, and values, and it is further reinforced by the tendency of everyone to interact with fellow partisans and especially media in their echo-chamber bubbles of (mis-)information.

Have the Democratic and Republican brands changed over time, maybe in terms of whom they appeal to or the values they stand for?

One of the critical questions for political scientists and political historians alike is to understand when and how such changes occur and with what consequences. While this is a continuing process, the modern Republican Party emerges out of the breakdown of the one-party South, starting under President Reagan and reaching a point of real success in 1994: Not only did Republicans break the forty-year hold of the Democrats on the House majority, but they also won a majority of House seats in the South for the first time and chose a heavily Southern leadership, led by Speaker [Newt] Gingrich. This transformed the party of Lincoln, which relied exclusively on Northern votes, to one that had a strong base in the South—and among white Southerners, in particular.

Trump’s inability to condemn white supremacy is one legacy. There are many other aspects of deep and important changes. Trump appears to have weakened if not broken the Republican commitment to free-market principles and small deficits. But who knows if that will continue? Democrats have become the party that embraces a commitment to the environment, a set of principles that was at least shared if not more strongly held by Republicans at the start of the twentieth century. Democrats were the pro-life party, Republicans the pro-choice party, until around 1980. Everything changes. What matters is how and when.

Again the polls seemed to miss the mark. How would you reform political polling?

While there is much work to be done to understand polling’s successes and failures, it seems clear that they did not lead us to expect how close 2020 was going to be. And this appears to be true for lots of races, not just the presidency. It may very well be that they did not miss by more than a reasonable margin of error, but that it was pervasive is worrying.

I would start by understanding that doing high-quality polling is getting more difficult—and therefore more expensive—year after year. One possibility is to have major media form a consortium, as they do already for the exit polls, and allocate the resources to get a common set of high-quality polls of the nation and of key states, if not all states.

One challenge is to get the best possible snapshot of the electorate, since each poll is but a snapshot of a single moment in time, and that is what inspires the thought of a consortium of some sort. These are designed to actually include in the poll the full set of people. A second challenge is to worry about whether people are reporting their attitudes and choices accurately. We’ve been hearing for two election cycles about the possibility of “shy” Trump voters. I suspect there are very few of them—and if there are any, they are likely shy not just about their support for Trump but for other candidates, too. But there is so much other relevant information out there, in social media and in other public forums, that the future seems, to me, a combining of all kinds of “big data” with polling data to reach better conclusions. 

Lots of money flowed into the campaign, including downballot races. Is there reason to question the importance of money in contributing to victory?

Money—actually the things that money can buy—is necessary for an effective campaign in anything like a competitive environment. It is not sufficient. You have to have something to say that resonates with the people whose support you are pursuing. That has long been the advantage of the incumbent: a known quantity with access to resources and something to say about what she or he worked on since the last election. Challengers need money to compete against those advantages. But this time, there was so much money floating around that campaigns seemed to be looking for some way to be able to spend it all!

How did you do your own voting? Did you vote early in person, vote by mail, or vote on Election Day?

My wife and I filled out mail ballots, but I decided to take them to the Duke early-voting site for hand delivery. It was easy; there was no one else voting or doing handdelivery of ballots when I went there. And the ability to interact with poll workers doing what turned out to be such a wonderful job in support of the community was heartwarming.

Share your comments

Have an account?

Sign in to comment

No Account?

Email the editor