Researching Political Game Changers

by Jacob Maguire | 10/11/17 2:25am

Although Americans disagree about President Donald Trump’s job performance during his first eight-and-a-half months in office, both his supporters and his opponents agree that Trump has upended the status quo in Washington, D.C.

However, many Americans also feel that recent events, from an increase in divisive rhetoric to a rise in attacks on transgender individuals and undocumented immigrants, have represented a departure from critical democratic norms.

In an effort to examine the recent deviations from democratic norms, government professors John Carey and Brendan Nyhan have been conducting a study alongside political science professors Gretchen Helmke and Susan Stokes from the University of Rochester and Yale University, respectively.

Carey and Nyhan initiated the study, which they have titled “Bright Line Watch,” after concern over various events over the course of the 2016 election cycle.

“We really started taking an interest in the health of American democracy of the course of the presidential campaign,” Carey said. “I wanted to determine and fully unpack whether there are particular areas of democracy under threat, because [these events] mean a lot of different things to different people.”

Nyhan particularly found Trump’s behavior to be alarming.

“We’ve seen violations of a series of norms that I didn’t expect to be questioned,” Nyhan said. “The list goes on and on: I didn’t expect a political candidate to be offering de facto endorsements of violence against their opponents, I didn’t expect a presidential candidate or sitting president to be attacking the free media and I didn’t expect a presidential candidate or president to refuse to release their tax returns in the post-Watergate era or attack a federal judge based on their ethnicity.”

Nyhan explained that this pattern of behavior raises a series of questions about how democracy works outside of the constitutional and legal system.

“There are certain norms that act as bulwarks for democracy, and we can’t defend them legally, but they are nonetheless important in a functioning democracy in order to hold officials accountable,” he said.

According to Nyhan, the purpose of the “Bright Line Watch” study, which has been featured in several media outlets, is to monitor how well experts think U.S. democracy is doing in a series of areas.

“The idea of the study is to identify areas of concern in as close to real time as possible,” Nyhan said.

In order to achieve their intended goals, Carey, Nyhan and their colleagues have been comparing the opinions of experts to those from members of the general public and publishing quarterly reports. Carey and Nyhan have been somewhat surprised by the results that these processes have yielded.

“We expected experts to be more alarmed about the state of American democracy than members of the general public because there is a widespread perception that [political scientists and academic professors] are more liberal than members of the American public at large,” Carey said. “However, we discovered the exact opposite. Members of the public are generally alarmed about U.S. democracy, whereas experts are more confident about the strength of democratic institutions.”

Although the testimony of experts has been reassuring for both professors, Nyhan emphasized that current violations of democratic norms are still problematic.

“We can’t formally prohibit every type of bad behavior by a candidate, but we rely on informal norms in order to defend conventions in our democratic society,” Nyhan said. “We’ve seen that our sanction process is weak, and, due to extreme partisanship and political polarization, individuals haven’t been holding members of their own political parties accountable often enough. That needs to happen more ­— the strength of American democracy depends on it.”

However, the 2018 midterm elections could provide the public with an opportunity to hold both political parties accountable, Nyhan said. Although Nyhan has not researched or performed polling about the 2018 midterm elections, he analyzed the outcome of the 2010 midterm elections extensively. In that election cycle, which occurred two years into former President Barack Obama’s first term amidst a sluggish economic recovery from the Great Recession, the Republican Party recaptured the majority of the seats in the United States House of Representatives, gained six seats in the United States Senate and flipped control of various governorships and state legislatures.

By analyzing data, Nyhan found a significant statistical correlation between the Democratic-led Congress’s passage of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act in March of 2010 and the results of the midterm election later that year. Congressional Democrats who voted against the ACA tended to perform about 5 percentage points better during the 2010 midterm elections than Democratic incumbents who voted for the Affordable Care Act.

“Democratic members of Congress who voted for the Affordable Care Act suffered considerably during the 2010 elections in marginal districts,” Nyhan said. “There was an unusual level of accountability in that election. Our data showed that the passage of the Affordable Care Act helped to cost Democrats the House.”

Nyhan is skeptical that the Republicans will face a backlash based on their efforts to repeal the ACA, however.

“Americans react generally to the thrust of policy, but not always to specific legislation during midterm elections,” he said. “Also, even though the Republican health care plans were very unpopular, they ultimately failed to pass. It’s unlikely that Americans will remember that particular episode over a year from now.”

However, Nyhan predicts that control of the United States House of Representatives could be in play as a result of Trump’s approval rating.

“Republicans are vulnerable because the president’s party typically suffers during midterm elections no matter what, and because President Trump is unusually unpopular for a first-term incumbent,” Nyhan said. “We don’t know precisely why President Trump is so unpopular at this point in his term, but it is unusual for a president to have approval ratings in the low 40s when the economy is doing well.”

Furthermore, Nyhan added that “demoralization among the Republican base” as a result of the G.O.P.-controlled Congress’s “failure to get anything of interest done, when coupled with a surge in Democratic enthusiasm and turnout” could lead to significant turnover during the 2018 congressional elections.

In addition to conducting research about American elections and violations of democratic norms, Nyhan has also studied public opinion in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria, which battered Puerto Rico and other Caribbean islands in mid-September.

On Sept. 26, Nyhan and his Dartmouth colleague Kyle Dropp, a co-founder of Morning Consult polling and a lecturer in the government department, wrote an article in The New York Times about Americans’ opinions about providing aid to Puerto Rico.

While writing their article, “Nearly Half of Americans Don’t Know Puerto Ricans Are Fellow Citizens,” Dropp and Nyhan found that Americans were more likely to support providing foreign aid to Puerto Rico if they were aware that Puerto Ricans were U.S. citizens.

“When people were randomly informed that Puerto Ricans are U.S. citizens, it increased support for federal aid in the aftermath of [Hurricane Maria] by about 4 percentage points among all Americans, with significant gains among Trump supporters and Republicans,” Nyhan said.

Unlike many other colleges and universities, Dartmouth prioritizes both teaching and research among its professors. The College provides significant funding for professors to conduct research.

“Teaching and research are both essential parts of being a professor at Dartmouth,” said government department chair and professor Dean Lacy. “Teaching and research are mutually reinforcing, we hope.”

Nyhan is grateful for Dartmouth’s prioritization of public engagement.

“Dartmouth has been very supportive of me doing public engagement in an academic context,” Nyhan said. “That isn’t always true [in all universities], so I’m appreciative of that.”