This month, a team of political scientists known as the Bright Line Watch released a study showing that Republicans, Democrats and independents are all more likely to support candidates that respect independent legal investigations. Bright Line Watch works to monitor the state of U.S. democracy and any potential threats it faces.
Brendan Nyhan, a professor in the Ford School of Public Policy at the University of Michigan and a co-director of the Bright Line Watch team, co-authored the study along with five other political scientists.
The study, called “Party, policy, democracy and candidate choice in U.S. elections,” was conducted in late October and involved surveying 962 online participants about their preferences for candidates’ policy positions in a hypothetical upcoming election.
These findings come amid former Attorney General Jeff Sessions’s forced resignation, which has left the future of special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into Russian involvement in the 2016 election unclear. Trump has since appointed Matthew Whitaker as acting attorney general.
According to the study, 35 percent of the respondents identified as Republicans or independents who lean Republican, 43 percent as Democrats or independents who lean Democratic and 17 percent as independents with no partisan lean.
The survey found candidates who favor political control over independent investigations instead of neutrality were 5.3 percentage points less likely to win the support of Democratic voters, nearly four percentage points less likely for Republicans, and 8.1 percentage points less likely among independents.
This specific finding stood in contrast to the others of the study, in which there were sharp partisan divides when it came to tax policy, discrimination and affirmative action and voting rights.
Nyhan said he was surprised by the bipartisan support of independent investigations.
“I thought the stream of attacks by the Trump administration on the Mueller investigation and on unfavorable rulings by judges would produce a wider partisan divide,” Nyhan wrote in an email interview. “I find those results encouraging – they are a valuable reminder that most people don’t follow politics very closely and that many democratic norms still enjoy bipartisan support.”
Both representatives from the University’s chapter of College Republicans and chapter of College Democrats, however, said they were not surprised by the bipartisan support for independent investigations. LSA sophomore Dylan Berger, president of College Republicans, said the study reaffirmed what he already knew.
“I don’t think that (the finding) surprised me because in this country, it’s very important that we put conservative and liberal aside and do what’s right, and I think the majority of people want to make sure that we’re bridging those divides and have good government,” Berger said.
Public Policy junior Katie Kelly, director of communications for College Democrats, said she was also unsurprised by the results.
“I don’t think that this finding is that surprising,” Kelly said. “In a country where bipartisanship has become more difficult to achieve than ever before, it is very important that we focus on the issues that we all agree on. This survey shows that the majority of Americans are united on this particular issue, not just Democrats, Republicans, or independents.”
The study cautions readers from interpreting the bipartisan support for independent investigations in an overly optimistic way. As Nyhan pointed out, even though Democrats and Republicans may believe the same underlying principle, they could potentially interpret the meaning of an “independent and fair” investigation in different ways.
“As we describe, it is possible for a consensus to exist on various democratic principles but for partisans to disagree sharply on how to interpret or apply those principles in particular cases,” Nyhan wrote. “Imagine two people who say investigations should be impartial but one opposes political interference in the Mueller investigation and the other thinks the investigation is a partisan ‘witch hunt’ that should therefore be shut down.”
The study raises questions about how the U.S. electorate will react if Mueller’s investigation is ended prematurely by Whitaker. Both College Republicans and College Democrats say they have conversations within their organizations about the Mueller probe.
Berger said he is confident President Donald Trump will allow Mueller’s investigation to be carried through to completion, while Kelly saidshe saw real concern among voters when canvassing before the midterm elections that the investigation would be cut short.
“Outside of our members, I personally saw a good amount of discussion on the issue when knocking doors during the election cycle,” Kelly said. “Many people were concerned about the investigation being cut short. We in College Democrats share that concern. It is important that Robert Mueller has the appropriate time and resources to complete a full investigation.”
Another major finding of the study was that parties divide sharply on the issue of voting rights. Based on the survey, the public ranked the importance of equal voting rights very high, with 89 percent of respondents calling it important or essential, but the two parties perceive this democratic principle differently. Republicans are concerned with enforcing equal voting rights by combating voter fraud, while Democrats are focused on protecting voter rights by ensuring equal access to the ballot box.
Nyhan made the distinction that widespread voter fraud is not an issue the U.S. faces, whereas voter suppression of marginalized groups does exist.
“The problem is there’s a factual misperception at the heart of this dispute,” Nyhan wrote. “Every serious inquiry has shown that widespread voter fraud is virtually nonexistent. By contrast, the risk of voter ID laws creating undue burdens on voters from disadvantaged groups is real.” He also pointed out, though, that the literature is mixed as to whether stricter voter ID laws do reduce voter turnout.
Berger said it is important to both protect Americans’ constitutional right to vote and ensure that only those that are supposed to vote actually go out and vote. He said he believes voter fraud is one of the most important issues facing our country.
“I would really like to see both sides become more interested in protecting from voter fraud because if you have voter fraud going on in this country, our election system will not be able to stand up, because in order to retain legitimacy, you’ve got to make sure that only those that are supposed to vote actually vote,” Berger said.
Kelly affirmed College Democrats are concerned about voter suppression across the United States.
“Both as College Democrats and as college students, we know firsthand that voter suppression is a problem in this country,” Kelly said. “As stated in the survey, research has shown that voter fraud is not a problem in this country. I think that elections like those in Georgia show that we have a long way to go to ensure equal voting rights for every American citizen.”
Kelly is referring to voter suppression efforts in Georgia during the midterm elections, in which Brian Kemp, governor-elect and former secretary of state of Georgia, purged the voter rolls prior to the election, under the justification of removing people who haven’t voted in recent elections, as well as those who had died. His office held 53,000 voter registrations, nearly 70 percent of which were Black voters, because the name used on the registration did not exactly match one on government records. When ending her bid for governor, Kemp’s opponent Stacey Abrams lamented an “erosion of democracy” that she believed kept some of her supporters from voting.
Looking forward, Nyhan believes the study has implications for the 2020 presidential election, mainly in the general election if Trump’s democratic norm violations contribute to his underperformance in the polls.
“His approval ratings are well below what we’d expect given the state of the economy,” Nyhan said. “If Trump continues to underperform because of factors like democratic norm violations, it could put him at greater risk of defeat in 2020.”
Both Berger and Kelly said they think the study indicates the American electorate will want a candidate who can put the needs of the country over party and respect American democratic institutions.
“I think this survey shows that there are issues that Americans agree upon,” Kelly said. “Future candidates must focus on uniting our country instead of dividing it.”