Three professors and political science professionals discussed what they felt was required in order to be informed ahead of midterm elections on Tuesday at a roundtable discussion Thursday at the University of Michigan Institute for Social Research. 

A host of programming and institutional initiatives this semester have focused on increasing awareness and turnout in the upcoming elections. Only 14 percent of students voted in the 2016 election. This summer, however, Washtenaw County as a whole experienced the highest surge in voter turnout across the state for the primary, jumping by 6.7 percent.    

Public Health student Charley Willison attended the event and emphasized on the importance of voting this upcoming election.  

“Midterm election turnout historically is low in the U.S.,” she said. “So I think for students, making sure students get out and go vote regardless of political affiliation is really crucial.”

During the panel session, held by the Center for Political Studies, speakers each presented about an aspect of their choice on the election, then answered questions from audience members. The discussion was moderated by Ken Kollman, the director of ISR’s Center for Political Studies. Speakers included Ashley Jardina, a graduate of the University of Michigan and assistant professor of political science at Duke University, Brendan Nyhan, professor at the Ford School of Public Policy, and Stuart Soroka, professor of Communication Studies and Political Science.

Jardina began by discussing the prevalence of race and identity in the 2018 midterm elections. She focused on immigration in particular, describing how differently Republicans and Democrats view the issue. Jardina used the example of building a wall on the Mexican border as an indicator of the degree to which views on immigration have become polarized, saying a poll found 76 percent of Republicans are in favor of a wall and 89 percent of Democrats are against it.

“These partisan differences extend across different types of immigration,” Jardina said. “We would expect there to be some partisan differences with respect to immigration attitudes, but these are far more marginalized than they’ve been in the past.”

Jardina further stated a highlight of this election is that currently, President Donald Trump appeals to many white voters’ anxieties about changing demographics within the U.S. She described how many Republican politicians are following his lead and using this political strategy for the election.

“They’re trying to appeal to voters’ attitudes about race, about immigration, and they’re very much following Trump’s lead,” Jardina said. “And of course, most of the stuff that’s coming out of the administration right now is, in fact, most likely an effort to try and mobilize the subset of voters who really are concerned about immigration to get them to turn out and vote for the Republican candidates.”

Nyhan spoke next, highlighting the importance of taking a step back from forecasting the election. He instead chose to focus on three main points: the state of the U.S.’s democracy in 2018, the extent to which Trump is changing the Republican Party and the role conspiracy theories and misinformation play in democracy.

In regards to the role of conspiracy theories in today’s elections, Nyhan said politicians used false information take advantage of voters’ general fear of immigration.

“Now we’ve moved to a completely different level where there’s blatant racial appeals to ethnic fear that are being merged with misinformation that is just remarkable,” Nyhan said.

Soroka concluded the speaker presentations by focusing closely on the analytics behind surveying. He described how polling sites analyzed responses to the question: “If the election for U.S. Representatives were held today, would you vote definitely for Democrats or Republicans, and why?” Survey analyzers focused on the words that get most mentioned in response to the question, and the words that are most distinguishing of Republicans and Democrats.

From this process, Soraka was able to uncover that Democrats had “Republican” as one of their most-used words and Republicans had “Democrats” as one of their most-used words. He also noticed words generally associated with one party were said very frequently by the opposing party.

“The words I think nicely characterize a negative mobilization on both sides,” he said.  

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