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Polling and Parties and Midterms, Oh My!

Asst. Prof. John Cluvrius chats with WCVB reporter Julie Loncich the day after the 2018 Massachusetts primaries Photo by K. Webster
WCVB reporter Julie Loncich interviews Asst. Prof. John Cluverius the day after the Massachusetts primaries.

By Katharine Webster

John Cluverius, an assistant professor of political science, uses survey research to peer into the minds of voters and politicians. That’s made him the go-to guy for media outlets looking for analysis of the contest for the open seat in Massachusetts’ 3rd Congressional District.

But Cluverius’ expertise extends far beyond the district and the state, as he looks at who makes up key voter blocks and examines whether mass email campaigns sway legislators’ votes.

As the new associate director of UML’s Center for Public Opinion, Cluverius will delve even further into voter perceptions and political outcomes – and then bring those examples into his Research Methods classes.

Cluverius took time off between television and radio interviews the day after the Massachusetts primaries to chat about his research and the upcoming midterm elections.

Q: How is President Trump affecting the midterm races? 

A: Republicans want to support Trump, so we’ve seen the positive influence of Trump endorsements in GOP primaries. In Massachusetts, for example, Geoff Diehl, who won the Republican primary to contest U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren’s seat, has clearly aligned himself as a Trump Republican. Some Trump-backed candidates have won and some have lost – but Trump has made a significant difference in every race. He’s made an unprecedented effort to use the power of the presidency as a force within the party primary system.

Q: What are the trends among Democratic voters?

A: Democrats want to use the institutions of democracy at their disposal to stand up to Donald Trump. You see white, incumbent Democrats in majority-minority districts losing in the primaries, even when the incumbents and their challengers have equally progressive agendas – for example, in Boston City Councilor Ayanna Pressley’s upset of U.S. Rep. Michael Capuano. The difference is less about specific policies and more about the tone the challengers adopt toward Trump.

Q: What’s the level of voter enthusiasm in the two parties? Are Republicans or Democrats doing a better job of firing up their voters?

A: In all midterm elections, there’s an inherent bias against the president and party in control of Congress. For people in the party that’s out of power, midterms are a chance to resist the sitting president, so the “out” party almost always gains seats. In this election cycle, we’re seeing that Democrats are excited to vote, even in the primaries, where they turned out in much higher numbers than Republicans. In every state, Democrats have seen surges of younger voters, first-time voters and voters of color who didn’t vote in the presidential election in 2016. That bodes well for Democrats in November. 

At the same time, Trump’s warnings about the dire consequences of Democrats gaining control of Congress aren’t leading to higher turnout among Republicans – at least not so far. That kind of message never seems to connect with voters of the president’s party, whether it’s Trump or Obama. Voters always seem to think that as long as their guy is president, everything’s going to be OK, regardless of what happens in Congress.

UMass Lowell Assistant Professor of Political Science John Cluverius Photo by K. Webster
John Cluverius, an assistant professor of political science, brings his experience as a political consultant to his research methods classes.
Q: You used to work as a political operative yourself. Why did you turn to a research and teaching career?

A: I’m really interested in how political actors find new ways of processing information and figure out shortcuts to connect with voters. The 3rd Congressional District race is a great example. Our poll with The Boston Globe two weeks before the Democratic primary found Dan Koh in the lead, with 19 percent, and Barbara L’Italien and Rufus Gifford tied at 13 percent. Lori Trahan and Juana Matias trailed at 8 and 6 percent respectively, and the other five candidates had 4 percent or less. But 31 percent of likely Democratic primary voters were still undecided, so we knew that a lot could change before primary election day.

We didn’t foresee that Trahan would pick up most of the undecided voters in Middlesex County and that Matias would do the same in Essex County. Trahan edged past Koh to win by 122 votes – before the recount – giving each of them 22.6 percent of the total. And Matias surged to third place with 15.2 percent, just ahead of L’Italien and Gifford. Koh had a major fundraising advantage and big TV ad buys that gave him the best districtwide name recognition, but Trahan and Matias made small, very strategic media buys in the final days. It also helped that the Globe endorsed Trahan and gave a kind of secondary endorsement to Matias.

Q: Your past research has found that massive email campaigns designed to change legislators’ minds about an issue can actually harden their stance. What’s next?

A: My most recent research concerns the “progressive” and “alt-right” labels. People who have sexist attitudes are more likely to identify as “progressives” than “liberals.” These are the so-called “Bernie bros” – men who supported Bernie Sanders over Hillary Clinton in the 2016 Democratic presidential primaries, although they’re only a subset of Sanders supporters. They’re less likely than liberals to support left-leaning women candidates.

The “alt-right” label, which came into heavy use in 2016, is associated with candidates who are more preoccupied with racial issues than with politicians identified as “conservative.” Our experiments find that people think alt-right candidates are more likely to support profiling of Muslims, oppose both legal and illegal immigration, deny the existence of racial bias in policing and believe that whites are under attack.

Q: Tell us a little more about your work with the Center for Public Opinion and how it benefits your students.

A: I’m a survey researcher, so I’m excited to help the Center develop its infrastructure. We’re working hard to make all of our data and methodology available publicly, for free, as part of the American Association of Public Opinion Research’s Transparency Initiative.

The class that I teach most often is Research Methods in Political Science. That topic can seem really abstract until I talk to my students about research someone is doing in the Center for Public Opinion. My students get to see that research unfold in front of them, and they can really get their hands dirty with the data.