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Public Opinion


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Public Opinion Dashboard

Interest/Participation in Elections

Officials/Elections Characteristics

Reelections/ Running For Office

Confidence in Elections


Interest/Participation In Elections

When examining elections, one way to gauge the public's attitudes towards elections is to examine interest and participation in elections.  While a majority of citizens are "somewhat interested," it is intriguing that during the past two elections, the number of individuals who are "very much interested" increased dramatically. Additionally, citizens tend to show greater interest in the campaign if it is presidential rather than congressional. 


Similar to the above graph, the one below examines how invested citizens are concerning who wins an election. Interest in elections has been on the rise since the 1980s, with presidential elections having higher results than congressional ones.

While participating in elections (or even interest in candidates) are regular indicators of citizen involvement in elections, it is interesting to see the number of people who show an added level of civic engagement by trying to inform others of which way they should vote. While those who do so have remained the minority throughout the duration of the below study, the number of individuals who answered "yes" is starting to slope upward since they early 2000s. Hopefully, future research would help us to see if this increase is correlated with technology, and if it will be affected by increasing polarization in future years.

Lastly, many people may show interest in elections, but that doesn't always translate into the number of people who register to vote and then actually vote. The storyboard below provides details on those who registered to vote and those who in fact voted. The graph entitled "Net Score" subtracts the number of individuals who did not vote (including those who had registered but failed to vote) from the number of those who did. We can see that 1990 was the lowest year, with there actually being more people who did not vote than those who did.  While 2020 actually had the highest number of voters.

Officials/Elections Characteristics

Another way to examine elections is to look at the characteristics surrounding either elections themselves or those who are running. One characteristic that has been notable during recent elections is the increasing party polarization. While the graph below only starts in 2004, it is interesting to see that except in January of 2009, a majority of respondents felt that the country was "more politically divided than in the past" and since 2012 this sentiment has averaged over 80%. 


A current (as of February 2022) U.S. senator Amy Klobuchar noted that "as elected officials, we were sent to the halls of government by our neighbors to do their work—and much work needs to be done. Remembering our shared experiences with the people we represent makes us better and more accountable civil servants." This supports the traditional belief that elected officials are supposed to represent (and therefore be aware) of what their constituents want/need.  Yet, whether or not individuals believe that is true today is another question. In a survey by PEW, respondents were asked whether or not they believe that federally elected officials stay in touch with their constituents. Unfortunately, the response is not a positive one. From 1994 to 2015, a majority of individuals (66%-79%) believe that "elected officials in Washington lose touch with the people pretty quickly." This raises the question of what can be done to begin to change this perception, and what led to it in the first place.

This next series of graphs compares a series of traits and how well elected officials, business leaders, and the typical American personify them. For elected officials, they received more favorable responses on "intelligent", "lazy", and "patriotic" and they received negative responses on "honest" and "selfish." Business leaders' responses also followed a similar vein. The typical American received the most favorable response, with selfish being the only trait to receive a negative response.

While this next graph may not directly measure a characteristic of elected officials, it does nevertheless, measure a) the expectation that they should behave in a certain way, and b) if they do not that, whether or not they should be held accountable and face serious consequences for their misconduct. We can see that a high majority of citizens (over 80%) believe that it is "very important" that elected officials do receive serious consequences for their misconduct.

Reelections/ Running For Office

The next way we examine public opinion with elections is to look at reelections and the process of running for office. The graphs below compare whether "your member" or "most members" of Congress deserve to be reelected.  Perhaps not surprisingly, respondents looked upon their own representatives more favorably than other representatives.  For example, in 2020 only 35% said that their representative should not be reelected compared to 68% of those who said that "most members" should not be reelected. 


Similar to the graph above, this next graph measures whether or not individuals who are currently in office should be able to run for re-election. While there wasn't a clear trend in the response for those who approve, we can see that it remains in the 50-60 percentile over the duration of the study. Another interesting trend is that since 2012, there has been a dramatic shift in responses from "Don't Know" to "Disapprove." 

Although there are only two data points on this graph, it covers a span from 1988 to 2015. We can see that over that time, the responses have stayed nearly the same, with a majority of respondents still believing that many good candidates refrain from running due to the high costs of presidential campaigns.

Confidence In Elections

Next we examine confidence in elections, which relates to voter fraud and whether or not votes are counted as intended. The graph below measures the later, asking respondents how confident they are that their personal vote will be counted as intended and if as a whole, votes are accurately counted at the local, state, and national level. The responses showed that individuals are generally more confident with their own vote and with levels of government that are closer to them.


This next graph looks at three different voting issues. The first examines eligible voters not being allowed to vote, the second asks how many votes are cast by those who aren't eligible to vote, and the third how many votes are made through illegal or fraudulent means. With all three graphs, 2020 had the highest response rate for those who considered these issues a "major problem." Part of it could be due to the rhetoric surrounding the election on this issue (for more on this see this article from Heritage or this one from the Brennan Center).

These next two graphs measure honesty in elections first by country and then overtime in the U.S.  The United States tends to be on the higher end of those who do not believe in the honesty of elections at 59%.  The country who has the least amount of confidence in elections is Mexico at 68%, and the countries who have the most confidence is Norway and Finland at 89%.  


When it comes to the honesty of elections over time in the U.S., after 2009 those who do not have confidence have outnumbered those who do. Confidence reached its lowest point in 2016 at 30%, before having a 17% increase the following year. However, this did not last as it declined once more in subsequent years.

These next graphs continue with the same theme as above—exploring confidence in votes being cast and counted accurately. The first two compare confidence across the country, to where an individual votes over time. The third breaks down voter confidence by state over time. The fourth compares voter confidence by different election levels (i.e. local, state, or national elections). Lastly, confidence is broken down by party.


Key Takeaways

  1. When examining public opinion on elections, there are several patterns that emerge. The first pattern is that the more personal or local an election/vote, the more favorable results. The second pattern is that elections can be widely influenced by party. If the party's candidate wins, the voters responses are more positive rather than if they lose the election. Lastly, even though they trust state/local elections more, voters tend to be more engaged in years that there are federal elections rather than just state/local ones.

  2. Interest in elections has been on the rise as interest in federal elections continues to be higher than state or local elections. In a Harvard Political Review article, Matthew Gross attributes this to apathy and lack of media coverage, while highlighting the impact that participating in local elections can have.  This difference in interest and participation of elections can also tie into centralization and political identity.  For more on this, watch this video by renowned federalism scholar Alan Tarr. 

  3. While many may have an interest in elections, individuals tend to have more negative views about elected officials and see the country as more polarized than in previous years. Pew's report, Beyond Red vs. Blue: The Political Typology, discusses party polarization as well as the various typologies within each party which, as intended, "provides a road map to today’s fractured political landscape."

  4. Perhaps not surprisingly, individuals tend to favor their own members of congress over other members. It is interesting that while they do favor the incumbent running for reelection, they also feel that many good candidates are discouraged from running for office. 

  5. With confidence in elections, the U.S. tends to have very little confidence in elections compared to other countries around the world. But when examined by level of government, it tends to follow the principles of decentralization, where the closer or more personal an election is, the more confident they are that votes were counted as intended. Party victories (or losses) can also play a large role in voter confidence.

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