By Katharine Webster
The 2016 presidential election has challenged pollsters, political scientists, the two main political parties—and most of all, voters.
That was the theme of a politics panel that featured an expert on polling, especially polls that measure voter attitudes, and a political scientist who studies conservative talk radio. The panel, which drew about 100 students, faculty and staff to O’Leary Library on Tuesday, was moderated by Assoc. Prof. Joshua Dyck, co-director of the university’s Center for Public Opinion.
Marjorie Connelly, former director of polling research at The New York Times and a senior fellow at The Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research, talked about the challenges of determining, through exit polls, what issues animate voters to support particular candidates.
Traditional exit polling, in which pollsters interview voters leaving polling places, is no longer a viable model in many states, she said. Three states—Oregon, Washington and Colorado—vote exclusively by mail-in ballot. In Arizona, 80 percent of voters vote before Election Day, and more than half of all states offer either early voting or no-excuse absentee ballots.
Pollsters have adapted by combining telephone and internet polling with traditional surveys, she said. That makes exit polling more expensive, so pollsters can no longer do detailed surveys in all 50 states; they focus on battleground states instead.
This year, that includes Utah—usually the most Republican of states, she said. But now, independent presidential candidate Evan McMullin, a Mormon who launched a shoestring campaign in August, is running close to both Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton in several Utah polls—and ahead in a couple.
“Mormons are not falling into line with the Republican Party,” she said. “It’s going to be fascinating. Everyone’s going to be watching Utah.”
Exit pollsters will be analyzing McMullin’s supporters. They will also test the findings of pre-election polls that suggest significant gender and education gaps between Trump and Clinton supporters, she said.
Jeffrey Berry, professor of political science at Tufts University and co-author of “The Outrage Industry: Political Opinion Media and the New Incivility,” said some of the demographics of Trump’s core supporters are already well-defined.
This year, Republican primary voters were 90 percent non-Hispanic whites, he said. In an overcrowded primary field, Trump held strong appeal for a major subset—the 35 million people who listen to conservative talk radio.
“I was struck by how masterfully Trump used language, using the talk radio playbook,” Berry said.
Berry disagreed with the oft-voiced idea that Trump’s success is an aberration.
“Trump is not a one-off,” Berry said. “He actually represents an evolution” of the Republican Party.
Berry said the Republican Party made great gains among white voters, especially in the South, after the Democratic Party unified in support of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. That helped elect Presidents Nixon, Reagan, George H.W. Bush and George W. Bush.
However, U.S. demographics have shifted in the Democratic Party’s favor in the past 50 years. African Americans, Hispanics, Asians and other minorities now comprise 39 percent of the population and an estimated 30 percent of voters. Unless the Republican Party fields candidates who are not racially divisive, it will commit “existential suicide,” he said.
“America is becoming much more diverse and minorities vote in much greater numbers,” he said. “That trend is inexorable.”
Provost Michael Vayda said he sympathizes with people who are weary of the campaign, but he warned against disengagement.
“Please vote, because this will set the course of our country for at least the next four years and probably beyond.”