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Election 2012

Economic Hardship, Political Attitudes, and the 2012 Election

Lindsay Owens and David S. Pedulla, Stanford University and Princeton University
November 5, 2012

election-2012As part of our Election 2012 series, Lindsay Owens and David S. Pedulla examine the effects of the economic downturn on political attitudes. Owens, a graduate student at Stanford University, contributed to the RSF volume The Great Recession. Pedulla is a graduate student in sociology at Princeton University.

As Americans head to the ballot box, they will no doubt consider whether Obama or Romney will be better able to stimulate our sluggish economy. People were hit hard by the Great Recession and the aftershocks of economic distress are still forceful in the lives of individuals, families, and communities across the country. How will these economic hardships influence the choices that voters make at the ballot box in the upcoming election? While only time will be able to answer this question definitively, below we present findings from some of our research that hints at some possibilities for how economic hardship may (or may not) influence the political attitudes and voting behavior of the American electorate.

In research for the Russell Sage Foundation’s edited volume The Great Recession (2011), Owens (with her co-author, Lane Kenworthy) examined whether a variety of political and social attitudes change during and after economic recessions. On the whole, the findings from this study suggest that recessions do not seem to produce lasting shifts in Americans’ attitudes in the aggregate (Kenworthy and Owens 2011). They found little evidence of a “recession effect” on perceptions of fairness and opportunity in the economy, interests in helping the poor, confidence in government, or beliefs about the proper role of the government in regulating the economy. And, the changes that do occur tend to be temporary, reversing when the economy begins to recover. Given these macro-level findings, we might expect that the current economic situation will not affect political attitudes in any significant ways.

Attitudes Toward The Financial Sector

Although we have not seen wholesale shifts in political attitudes due to the recent recession, there are a few areas where attitudes have changed. Americans’ favorability toward banks and financial institutions has reached at least a forty year low. And, drawing on data from the The Gallup Poll and Pew Research Center for the People and the Press, Owens (2012) finds that Americans’ attitudes toward the ethical practices of bankers and Wall Street stockbrokers are at historic lows. Social scientists don’t usually think these types of political attitudes matters in elections. But there is reason to think this election might be different. Republican Presidential candidate Mitt Romney has strong ties to the financial sector. In particular, he was a founding partner of Bain Capital, a large private equity investment firm. The Obama campaign has certainly seized upon Romney’s connection with such an unpopular industry, running a variety of ads linking Romney to Bain Capital and in particular highlighting Bain Capital’s role in outsourcing jobs overseas. Although there is little evidence that these ads have had a lasting negative impact on Romney’s favorability, his ties to Bain Capital are certainly not an asset given the shift in Americans’ attitudes towards the financial sector. The upshot is that Americans’ overwhelming negativity toward financial institutions and those individuals who work in them may pose a problem for the Romney campaign.

The "Obama Effect" on White Racial Prejudice

Seth K. Goldman, University of Pennsylvania
October 24, 2012

election-2012As part of our Election 2012 series, Seth K. Goldman examines the impact of President Barack Obama's campaign on levels of white prejudice. A Russell Sage grantee, Goldman is a post-doctoral fellow at the Annenberg School for Communication.

In the wake of the presidential and vice-presidential debates, pundits and political scientists alike have dissected the performance and rhetoric of the candidates, hoping to answer one question: Who will win the election? Obviously, this is an important question, but given the historic nature of Barack Obama’s candidacy, we need to also address another issue: Will the campaign to reelect the first African-American president influence white Americans’ racial attitudes? If the 2008 campaign is any indication, it may very well do so. My research demonstrates that during the 2008 campaign, long before Obama's election, levels of white racial prejudice declined significantly.

Using three waves of nationally representative panel data collected during the 2008 campaign, I found that in just a handful of months whites became less likely to rate whites more positively than blacks on three scales ranging from hardworking to lazy, trustworthy to untrustworthy, and intelligent to unintelligent. And although the size of the decline was modest statistically, it was big historically. Between July 2008 and January 2009, racial prejudice declined by a rate that was at least five times faster than the secular trend in prejudice occurring in the United States over the previous two decades.

A True Change of Heart?

These are dramatic changes, but could they be the result of a methodological artifact driven by social desirability bias—that is, did whites become increasingly concerned about looking racist without changing their personal beliefs? Based on a variety of reasons, however, this appears unlikely. As an illustration, consider that in the late summer of 2008 (during the first of the three waves of the panel survey) fully 56 percent of whites rated whites more positively than blacks on the three scales described above. This suggests little aversion to answering the questions in a way that indicates prejudice, probably due to the fact that the measure of prejudice did not require whites to directly compare whites and blacks. The items about the two groups appeared at different points in the survey (with the order randomized), separated by several minutes' worth of items about non-racial topics.

Moreover, although social desirability effects are common in face-to-face and telephone surveys, this study was conducted over the Internet, where such effects are much less common because the respondents do not interact with another person. Nonetheless, as another check, I took advantage of the random order in which whites were asked about whites and blacks. This allowed me to assess whether whites changed their ratings of the second group in an effort to rate the two groups equally. For instance, if fears of looking racist altered whites' ratings, then they should have rated blacks more positively when whites were asked about first (in order to shift closer to a presumably higher rating of whites). Similarly, whites should have rated whites less positively when blacks were asked about first (in order to shift closer to a presumably lower rating of blacks). Completely contradicting the possibility of social desirability effects, neither pattern appeared on any of the three waves of the panel survey.

Immigrants and Elections: Does a Lack of Citizenship Rights Translate into a Lack of Voice?

James A. McCann, Purdue University
October 18, 2012

election-2012As part of our Election 2012 series, James A. McCann evaluates the political voice of non-citizens during an election season. A political scientist at Purdue University, McCann is also a former RSF Visiting Scholar.

At present, some forty million residents of the United States – or about one-eighth of the total population – are foreign-born. The number of immigrants in the U.S. is now at an all-time high. To find a period in history when as large a proportion of the mass public was foreign-born, we must look back a century to the first great wave of migrant settlement. Immigrants today vary widely with respect to country of origin, language use, cultural practice, family structure, and job skills. There is also considerable variation in formal civic and migration status. According to the most recent Census estimates, 37 percent of the foreign-born are naturalized American citizens, 35 percent are permanent or temporary legal residents, and 28 percent are unauthorized to reside in the United States.

In this campaign season, much concern has been expressed about these latter two groups, and the possibility that immigrants without voting rights may gain access to the ballot box. Over a dozen states have sought to purge alleged non-citizens from electoral registration lists, and nine require voters to prove their identity by showing a government-issued document with a photograph at polling stations. To date, however, exceedingly little evidence of unlawful voting has emerged. Except in scattered municipalities around the country where non-citizens can vote in local elections, immigrants who have not completed naturalization cannot, and do not, cast ballots.

But does the lack of citizenship rights necessarily translate into a lack of voice during major national election campaigns? Large-scale telephone surveys of Mexican immigrants that I conducted with Stacey Connaughton (Purdue University) and Katsuo Nishikawa (Trinity University) during the 2008 campaigns with the support of the Russell Sage Foundation demonstrate that the foreign-born are far from disengaged from electoral politics. This holds true even for immigrants without voting rights. Below I point to three features of political engagement that we discovered among the foreign-born.

Welfare Reform Today

Lawrence Mead, New York University
October 16, 2012

election-2012As part of our Election 2012 series, Lawrence Mead evaluates the state of welfare reform. A professor of politics and public policy at NYU, Mead is the author of several books on poverty and welfare reform; he also co-edited the RSF volume Welfare Reform and Political Theory.

What is the status of welfare reform today? I will take "welfare reform" to mean primarily the changes in family aid made by the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act of 1996. The act replaced Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC) with Temporary Assistance for Needy Children (TANF), in which eligibility for welfare was much more strongly conditioned on work by the adult recipients than it had been before.

Reform attained its chief goals, to raise work levels on welfare and to reduce dependency. Among poor mothers, work levels soared in the 1990s, although some of that gain was lost in ensuing recessions. Cash welfare rolls plummeted by over two-thirds and grew very little in the recent hard times. Reductions in poverty were less dramatic, but still sizable, again with the gains reversing in the 2000s.

Evaluating Welfare Reform

Reform did not, however, assure that poor mothers who left welfare for jobs would have enough to live on. The combination of earnings with food stamps and wage subsidies was usually enough to lift a family out of poverty, but only if the mother worked steadily and full-time. Nor did reform assure that a working mother would be able to move up to higher pay over time. Few former welfare mothers work steadily, and more needs to be done to help them do that.

The leading criticism of reform has been that some 40 percent of mothers leaving cash aid did not go to work and have been left with little apparent support. Some think these “disconnected” mothers are in trouble, but so far no systematic evidence has emerged to show this. More inquiry is needed to find out how these mothers are coping. Most likely, most of them have found other means of support, such as living with other adults who are working or on other government benefits.

Another criticism is that some states have placed so many conditions on TANF that they have effectively closed the door to aid. In these places, applicants for aid have to produce so much documentation and search for jobs so strenuously up front that few can ever get on the rolls, even if they meet the income rules. If the federal government pays states to run a welfare program, then they must do so and not effectively deny aid to eligible recipients. Congress should investigate this issue when TANF is next reauthorized.

Obama and the Latino Vote: From Policy Failure to Political Success?

John D. Skrentny and Jane Lilly Lopez , University of California, San Diego
October 16, 2012

election-2012As part of our Election 2012 series, John D. Skrentny and Jane Lilly Lopez examine the crucial Latino vote and President Obama's record on immigration reform. A contributor to the RSF book, Reaching for a New Deal: Ambitious Governance, Economic Meltdown, and Polarized Politics in Obama's First Two Years, Skrentny is the director of the Center for Comparative Immigration Studies at the University of California, San Diego. Lopez is a graduate student in sociology at UCSD.

Obama’s support among Latino voters remains unchanged from 2008 despite the failure of his central promise to Latino voters: that he would pass comprehensive immigration reform. In actuality, Obama did not even come close to passing immigration reform. The administration never promoted a bill, and no bill reached the floor of either the House or the Senate. How does failure in policy lead to success in politics? The answer is that Obama used his executive authority to do just enough on policy to signal his support for Latinos. The Republicans, meanwhile, have contributed by further alienating Latinos even as their presence in the electorate has grown.

Why was comprehensive immigration reform such a failure in Obama’s first term? Comprehensive immigration reform has come in different versions over the years, but always retains the basic model of a "grand bargain" that pairs mass legalization of undocumented immigrants with efforts to control the border with Mexico to prevent a new population of undocumented immigrants from forming.

The Politics of Comprehensive Immigration Reform

The reasons Obama failed to pass reform can be stated succinctly. First, by the 2000s, much of the electorate and members of Congress had adopted negative attitudes toward undocumented immigrants and comprehensive reform. Many saw these immigrants as undeserving lawbreakers, and they saw reform as doomed to fail. This was because a 1986 comprehensive reform legalized almost 3 million migrants, but left the borders uncontrolled – by the mid-2000s, there were about 10 million new undocumented migrants in the country. For this reason, even many Democrats were skeptical of reform.

This factor helps us to understand Obama’s failure to enact reform, as well as George W. Bush’s failure. He tried twice in his two terms, and could not even rally a majority of his own party.

Another major factor was Republican opposition to nearly all Obama initiatives. Some Republicans had sponsored comprehensive reform under Bush. Under Obama, comprehensive reform did not have a single GOP sponsor. Even former stalwart supporters, such and John McCain (R-AZ) and Lindsey Graham (R-SC), abandoned the effort.

The final factor was the institutional structure of Congress. There are so many "veto points" that it is not difficult for a determined minority to pull the plug on any legislation.

The Executive Route

Failing at legislation, Obama avoided the Republicans and institutional obstacles in Congress by boldly going it alone to signal support for Latinos. Responding to the negative moral meaning of “illegal immigrants,” Obama targeted a legalization effort at the most deserving of the undocumented: those who would have been eligible for the “DREAM Act.” This category included those who came into the country when they were fifteen or younger, and thus as minors moving with parents were never “lawbreakers” in the true sense of the term. Moreover, to benefit from Obama’s plan, they had to be productive members of society: either students or soldiers. Finally, the plan was not a pathway to citizenship, it was simply a Department of Homeland Security announcement that there was no plan to deport them. It could even be reversed—if the wrong person became president.

Romney vs. Obama on the Environment

Judith Layzer, Massachusetts Institute of Technology
October 4, 2012

election-2012As part of our Election 2012 series, political scientist Judith Layzer of MIT analyzes the environmental policy proposals of the Democratic and Republican presidential candidates. A contributor to the RSF book, Reaching for a New Deal: Ambitious Governance, Economic Meltdown, and Polarized Politics in Obama's First Two Years, Layzer is Associate Professor of Environmental Policy at MIT.

Although the environment has not been a prominent issue in the 2012 presidential campaign, there is a stark difference between President Obama and Republican candidate Mitt Romney on the subject of energy—and by implication climate change. For decades, the Democratic-Republican divide on the environment has been growing, and nowhere is the chasm deeper than on the issue of climate change. The divergence in the two sides’ positions is largely driven by a shift within the Republican Party, which increasingly has embraced the conservative view that climate change is a problem invented by extremist environmentalists seeking to impose government control on all aspects of the economy, and that regulations on greenhouse gas emissions are the products of power-hungry bureaucrats run amok.

obama agendaThe rhetorical divide between Republicans and Democrats on energy and climate change is striking. The Democratic Party platform warns that global climate change is "one of the biggest threats of this generation—an economic, environmental, and national security catastrophe in the making." President Obama has repeatedly argued that climate change is a serious problem and urged Americans to pursue a "clean-energy economy." By contrast, the Republican platform opposes “any and all cap and trade legislation,” while vowing to end “the EPA’s war on coal” and instead encourage rapid development of the nation’s coal resources. The platform also calls on Congress to “prohibit the EPA from moving forward with new greenhouse gas regulations that will harm the nation’s economy and threaten millions of jobs.” The word “environment” does not appear as a category on Romney’s website, but he, too, decries regulation as a “hidden tax on Americans,” claiming that, as a result of minimal oversight from the White House, the economy is “subject to the whims of unaccountable bureaucrats pursuing their own agendas.” Although Romney is unusual among Republicans in acknowledging that humans contribute to climate change, he insists “there remains a lack of scientific consensus” and has ridiculed Obama for trying to prevent sea-level rise and heal the planet. Despite his record of support for energy efficiency and renewables as governor of Massachusetts, Romney has lambasted Obama for imagining that “government-subsidized windmills and solar panels could power the economy.”

The High Stakes for U.S. Health Care on November 6, 2012

Theda Skocpol, Harvard University
October 3, 2012

election-2012As part of our Election 2012 series, political scientist and sociologist Theda Skocpol analyzes the health care proposals of the Democratic and Republican presidential candidates, and what the election could mean for the future of the Affordable Care Act.

Should the United States expand health coverage and prod the system toward greater efficiency? Or should government retrench and unleash market forces? In our chapter on health reform in the recent Russell Sage Foundation book Reaching for a New Deal: Ambitious Governance, Economic Meltdown, and Polarized Politics in Obama’s First Two Years, Lawrence Jacobs and I highlighted the enormity of the legislative achievement represented by the Affordable Care and Patient Protection Act of 2010. This comprehensive effort seeks to expand health insurance coverage to more than thirty millions additional Americans, and also puts in place strategies and experiments to reduce rapidly rising costs in the U.S. health care system.

obama agendaOf course, the law and other Obama reforms sparked fierce conservative opposition. Far-right popular and plutocratic forces have since taken control of most of the Republican Party’s agenda going into the 2012 elections. For heath care in the United States, this raises the stakes as Americans are about to head to the polls in one of the most pivotal general elections in memory. Republicans, including presidential nominee Mitt Romney and vice presidential nominee Paul Ryan, are not only committed to repealing the Affordable Care Act. They have also promised to slash Medicaid and turn Medicare into a set of voucher subsidies for private health insurance.

Democrats want to use federal powers to expand health coverage and prod insurance companies and health-care providers into more efficient forms of care delivery, while Republicans call for sharp reductions in federal funding for health care and would count on expanded market competition to reduce future costs. The fate of Affordable Care, Medicaid, and Medicare are all at issue in this election. I draw on my own research with Lawrence Jacobs and on many two-page briefs on health care issues spotlighted this October by the Scholars Strategy Network (SSN) to outline the stakes in 2012. (SSN is a nationwide effort to get the voices of civically engaged scholars more fully into the public sphere. It has dozens of two-page briefs sure to interest Russell Sage Foundation devotees, not just on health care issues, but on a full range of social and political topics.)

Are Voters Competent? An Interview with Neil Malhotra

Rohan Mascarenhas, Russell Sage Foundation
October 3, 2012

election-2012In the latest installment of our Election 2012 series, political scientist and RSF Visiting Scholar Neil Malhotra discusses his research on retrospective voting and voter competence.

Q: In his book, Just How Stupid Are We?, the popular historian Rick Shenkman writes, "The consensus in the political science profession is that voters are rational." Before we go into the literature, I wanted to ask you to give your own assessment: How strong is the evidence that voters are rational? Would you agree with Shenkman’s conclusion?

A: I'll quote Vanderbilt political science professor Larry Bartels' response to Shenkman: "Well, no." If anything, the consensus in political science is that voters are uninformed and do not have well-structured preferences. Nonetheless, I think the question of whether voters are rational or irrational is not the right one. The important question is: Under what conditions does the American electorate collectively make decisions that benefit society and promote democratic accountability? That's a much tougher and more important question, I think.

Q: Let’s look at how political scientists have approached this question over the years. Let’s say I conducted a series of studies to find how much voters know about government, such as, "Who is the President?" or "What does the Federal Reserve do?" If I found that most people didn’t know the answers, could I conclude anything about voters' competence?

A: I don't think so. Skip Lupia of Michigan has rightly pointed out the question should not be "What do voters know or not know?" but rather "What do voters need to know?" Why is knowing the name of the Chief Justice an important or necessary job for voters? Indeed, the proponents of a research agenda called "retrospective voting" noted that voters actually need to perform fairly simple tasks: evaluate the health of the country and reward/punish the incumbent accordingly.

The Upside of Accents

Dan Hopkins, Georgetown University
June 19, 2012

immigration attitudesIn the third installment of our Election 2012 series, political scientist Daniel Hopkins discusses his RSF-funded study on attitudes towards immigrants and President Obama's recent immigration policy shift.

Last Friday, President Obama put immigration back on the front pages by announcing an end to deportations for illegal/undocumented immigrants who came to the U.S. as children. The issue of how to handle undocumented immigration is likely to stay in the news in the weeks to come, with the Supreme Court set to rule on Arizona’s 2010 immigration law. But do Americans’ reactions to undocumented immigrants vary with those immigrants’ personal characteristics, such as their appearance or their ability to speak English?

One of the most common answers to that question emphasizes ethnocentrism and inter-group similarity. In this view, we are likely to favor more lenient policies toward immigrants that are more like us, whether in how they look or how they speak. This approach might explain why 20% of respondents to a 1997 Knight Ridder poll thought immigrants from Mexico had done the most to create problems for the U.S., while just 1% said the same of European immigrants.

With support from the Russell Sage Foundation, I ran a survey experiment in 2010 to test the influence of inter-group similarity on attitudes about creating a pathway to naturalization. In all, just under 2,000 non-Hispanic white and black Americans sampled through Knowledge Networks participated in the experiment, which involved watching variants of an ABC News clip that had been experimentally altered. In the news clip, Diane Sawyer first describes a 2007 Senate compromise on immigration that would have required illegal immigrants to pay a $5,000 fine prior to naturalizing. I added a segment featuring “an immigrant who would be affected” at the end of the clip and I randomly varied both the blurred photograph in which he appeared and the voice-over through which he spoke. My respondents then indicated their support or opposition for creating a pathway to naturalization similar to what had just been described. In the control group that saw no video, 45% were somewhat or strongly supportive of the policy.

The experimental results—written up in an unpublished manuscript here—run against some of our most common intuitions about ethnocentrism and in-group favoritism. Check out the right side of the Figure below. A substantial shift in the featured immigrant’s skin tone has no impact on Americans’ support for a pathway to naturalization. To be sure, the immigrant’s appearance was otherwise similar, and given the broader context, respondents were likely to perceive him as coming from Latin America in any case. But on its own, the immigrant’s skin tone did nothing to change attitudes.

Community Colleges and Employment: Research Perspectives on President Obama's Proposal

David Neumark, University of California, Irvine
March 27, 2012

community collegeIn the second installment of our Election 2012 series, economist David Neumark discusses President Obama's proposal to increase funding for community colleges. Read more of his research on education and labor policy in his RSF book Improving School-to-Work Transitions.

One component of President Obama’s efforts to increase educational levels of the workforce is increased support for community colleges. Research points to the potential value of community colleges in helping young people make successful school-to-work transitions, in part by highlighting the links between what community colleges offer and the needs of the labor market, and how community colleges are able to respond to these needs. Community colleges can perform an important function in adult education, which can help meet the challenges of an aging population by enabling older workers to retool and remain productive at work.

A volume I edited based on a conference supported by the Russell Sage Foundation (Neumark, 2007) explored a number of policies and programs to improve the school-to-work transition, at both the high school and college level. The high school-level policies include activities supported under the School-to-Work Opportunities Act of 1994 and Career Academies. Career and Technical Education programs span high schools and community colleges. And the post-high school manifestation of school-to-work is community colleges. There is longitudinal evidence that high school programs boosted subsequent employment or the accumulation of skills. And the most compelling evidence of positive impacts comes from an experimental evaluation of the Career Academy model (Kemple, 2008).


What about community colleges? In support of the President’s efforts, the White House argues that “Community Colleges are particularly important for students who are older, working, or need remedial classes. Community colleges work with businesses, industry and government to create tailored training programs to meet economic needs like nursing, health information technology, advanced manufacturing, and green jobs."

The research record is supportive of this claim on both counts.

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