How did this project come about?
Matthew Levendusky: We’d actually planned a somewhat different study, looking at four swing states— Pennsylvania, Michigan, Wisconsin, and Florida—that we thought would end up being very important to the election. That turned out to be a good decision. But at the time, we thought our work would be more focused on the kinds of themes we had seen in 2016.
No one anticipated that 2020 would be such a tumultuous year, first with the COVID lockdowns, then the economic collapse and uneven recovery, the protests over racial justice and pushback to that, and then finally the crisis of legitimacy sparked by Trump’s refusal to accept the results of the election. At the end of it, we saw that what connected all these moments were four big moving parts, and that was our frame to try and understand what happened.
The biggest and the most important part of the book is thinking about what happened around Jan. 6. Our team was actually at a Zoom meeting on Jan. 6 because we had planned to close our study right around the time of Biden’s inauguration. We were planning out the last wave of the study. When we saw what happened that day we had to pivot and throw out a big chunk of what we had and redesign our survey. Part of what we were able to do is to understand how some of the preexisting attitudes have shaped the way people viewed the events that took place at the Capitol that day.
In many ways, what Jan. 6 is about is about who gets to hold political power in America and what it means for America to become a truly multiracial, multiethnic, multicultural democracy. A lot of the debates we’ve seen play out since then echo that same theme: critical race theory, how LGBTQ people, and transgender people in particular, fit into American politics, and so forth. These are all part of a broader—and long-standing—conflict in our politics.
Kathleen Hall Jamieson: The Annenberg Policy Center has conducted large-scale studies of presidential elections since 2000. After the Bush/Gore race, we published ‘The 2000 Presidential Election and the Foundations of Party Politics’; in 2011 we published ‘The Obama Victory: How Media, Money, and Message Shaped the 2008 Election.’ In the interim years of 2012 and 2016, we produced data and publications on debate effects. I wrote the book ‘Cyberwar’ from APPC data that showed that that in 2016 Hillary Clinton was disadvantaged by the debate moderators’ use of Russian-hacked content in the Trump-Clinton debates.
The Policy Center has a long history of assembling teams of people to develop datasets to explain important phenomena. We did that with the 2020 election as well, with a team made up of distinguished scholars from the Policy Center and graduates of the Annenberg School.
We were given a large block of money by Ambassador Walter Annenberg through the Annenberg Foundation to try to find out how the institutions of democracy in the United States function, to increase the likelihood that members of the public will cast informed votes in elections. In the process, we ask questions such as, ‘Does the process provide people with information that they need to make accurate decisions?’ We make no judgment about how people should vote but do assume that it’s better for them to vote and be accurate about the assumptions they’re making than to be inaccurate about those assumptions.
Increasing the public’s command of consequential knowledge has always been a focus of ours.
Did you uncover anything unexpected?
Levendusky: One interesting thing is that, despite everything that happened in 2020, preferences actually didn’t change all that much; the more things change, the more they stay the same. Despite COVID, the economic crash and very uneven recovery, the racial justice protests and everything else, the election results look very similar to 2016. As someone who’s worked on polarization for two decades, it’s still surprising to see this strange period where people tell you they’re unhappy with the direction the country is going yet their political behavior is still largely locked in place.
Hall Jamieson: One of our important findings was that people who experienced the COVID-19 pandemic in an environment where their economic well-being was very seriously affected became less likely to vote at all in the election. The implications of that are profound because the people who decided not to vote in this very close election may have had a role in shaping the outcome. We found that when the bottom falls out of your life economically, when you’re not sure you’re going to be able to pay the rent, when you don’t have a secure form of income anymore, you are more likely to become politically disengaged. Yet those are exactly the people you’d want to have engaged because they have great unmet societal needs. They fell through the safety net. If they don’t vote, the system is not going to be responsive to their needs. We did not anticipate that that would be a finding or that we would see people in that situation.
We started studying conspiracy theories when ones about COVID-19 emerged. As a result, we were prepared with questions on conspiracy theories about the pandemic. When the conspiracy theories started about the election, our other survey work had already assessed the extent to which people were accepting conspiracy beliefs.
What do you hope readers take away from this book?
Hall Jamieson: Elections are more complicated than some of the stories people tell about them. There is nuance in the public’s response overall to both Biden and Trump. Additionally, there are factors that affect whether you vote that are tightly tied to the economy. I think we’re going to ask different questions now about why people do and do not vote than we would have before. I hope we never have a circumstance in which we see people experiencing the kind of economic desperation that some of our panelists registered.
Levendusky: I would say two things. One is to try and understand at some basic level what took place in 2020 and how do we make sense of this crazy election and post-election period. But I think that the broader thing I’d like people to take away is just thinking about how those debates over what Jan. 6 meant and what was at stake that are continuing to resonate forward in our politics. It’s an ongoing process of contestation.
Where do you think the future of our democracy stands?
Levendusky: The important thing is that we survived the challenges in 2020. Without sounding trite, I would add that it’s everyone’s responsibility to protect democracy. Obviously, political elites hold a special responsibility there. But in some ways, what happens next is up to all of us. One important thing that happened in 2022 was that candidates who embraced election denialism did not do well, and in a lot of the key swing states they lost. That is important for thinking ahead to 2024, which will likely be another important election. Despite the fact that there’s been a lot of journalistic efforts, efforts by secretaries of state, the Department of Justice, and all sort of academics to show there’s been no evidence of any of the types of fraud that people have put forth, there’s still a set of people who believe that it happened, and it’s something we’re continuing to study. I may be sort of an optimist at heart, an optimist who sees that there’s a path forward, but it’s a path that we all have to figure out how to travel together, and that won’t be an easy thing.
Hall Jamieson: The last chapter tries to answer the question, ‘Where are we now?’ It also asks, ‘Where did the system prove resilient, and how can we make sure that those forms of resilience persist?’ Correlatively, where did the system prove vulnerable, and how do we reduce those vulnerabilities?
One of the things we said is the courts proved resilient. Donald Trump had the chance to put his strongest case forward in a neutral environment characterized by clear standards of evidence. His arguments failed that test even with judges he nominated to the court. What are the challenges we’re facing? We saw that the impeachment process is not able to hold an incumbent accountable in the ways anticipated by at least some of the founders. Both the House and Senate voted largely on party lines. Something that the Founders built in as a protection against an overreaching executive doesn’t appear to be working very well.
The system sustained a number of shocks in this election. We can’t assume that our system of government is a given and that it’s going to survive unless we are vigilant about protecting it.