Economy, Not Pandemic, Mattered Most to Voters

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Professor David Jones (GC/Baruch, Political Science) has served as an exit poll analyst for 20 years for The New York Times and CBS. He spent election night 2020 at CBS headquarters. Here are some of his observations. 

The Graduate Center: What do exit polls tell us about the issues that mattered most to voters?

Jones: One thing that was very interesting: Voters ranked the coronavirus third in terms of issues that mattered most. A lot of people thought the pandemic was driving the election, but the economy was the No. 1 issue. A plurality of 35% picked the economy as the most important issue. These numbers were reflected in almost every state, even states having spikes in COVID cases like Wisconsin. The next most important issue was racial inequality at 20%. 

Only 17% of voters nationwide said the coronavirus was the most important issue in deciding their vote. 

Also surprising to me was that voters’ views of the economy were very positive — more positive in this election in November 2020 than in November 2016. 
David Jones in the CBS Newsroom
David Jones in the CBS newsroom on election night. (Photo courtesy of Jones)

GC: How do you explain that when the economy is actually in worse shape now, with an unemployment rate of nearly 8% compared to an unemployment rate in November 2016 of less than 5%?

Jones: One theory that survey analysts posit is that people may be picking their candidate first, and then rationalizing their vote with an issue. So for example, you might decide for reasons that aren't obvious to yourself that you're a Trump voter. When someone asks why, you see that Trump’s talking about how the economy is great. So you say that’s why you’re voting for Trump. 

GC: What states were of particular interest to you?

Jones: I spent some time looking at Arizona when it started to look like it was leaning toward Biden. That would be a state Democrats haven't won since 1996. 

Hillary Clinton lost Arizona by 4 points, but I think Biden's going to end up winning Arizona by more than a point. In 2016, Clinton lost the 65-and-older vote there, 44% to Trump's 55%. But in 2020, exit polls show Biden actually had a slight edge among seniors. So that would be a flip. 

Biden also won in Arizona among the younger age group. Clinton also won younger voters in 2016 with 53% of the vote. But exit polls suggest that Biden was doing about 9 points better than Clinton among young voters.

I think a lot of those young voters are not voters who switched their association. I think a lot of it is new voters who have registered for the first time. Nationwide, not just in Arizona, it looks like maybe 13% of voters are brand-new and they're heavily siding with Biden — more than 66% of them.

GC: Any advice for professors or Ph.D. students who might want to work in this area?

Jones: Many programs offer degrees in survey research, but to do well in that you have to be a numbers person and you have to study statistics. There are also various graduate programs in managing campaigns and elections. That’s usually a better route for working in politics than getting a Ph.D. Many of the analysts at major networks and polling organizations have Ph.D.s in political science, but are also specifically focused on survey research.

The GC political science program is not designed to produce survey researchers, but the GC has had many people go on to do campaigns and elections and advocacy, including some of my students. To have a theoretical grounding in how human psychology works, how the mechanics of elections work, gives a big advantage to students looking to work in politics. 

GC: Why do results change as votes are counted and when will we have definitive answers on who won? 

Jones: Everyone was prepared in advance for this “red mirage,” where votes from those who showed up to vote in person on Election Day are often counted first, and skew Republican. But the mail-in ballots, which in some states couldn’t be opened until last night and will still be counted for several days as long as they were postmarked by Election Day, skew blue. 

My sense and prediction is that by the end of the day Wednesday — and I think Biden's spokesperson just came out and said something very similar — Biden's going to have a lead in all the states that he needs to win. The races may not all be called yet, but if he's already ahead by the end of the day, he’s likely going to win any remaining vote-by-mail pockets that are out there. That would suggest that he has a clear path to 270 electoral votes. 

Submitted on: NOV 4, 2020

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