The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

This is the most important election of your lifetime. Or is it?

If you think the election will make a big difference, you’re 30 percent more likely to vote than if you do not, my research finds

Voters cast their ballots in Bismarck, N.D., in October 2020. (Mike McCleary/Bismarck Tribune/AP)

On Monday, President Biden said that the upcoming midterms would be “one of the most important elections in our lifetime.” Washington Post columnist Eugene Robinson agreed. Back in 2018, evangelist Franklin Graham went even further, arguing that that year’s midterms would “determine the future for your children and grandchildren.”

One reason politicians and writers think the stakes are so high is that they expect dramatic policy changes to result from elections. As President Barack Obama said, “elections have consequences.”

Do voters agree that policies are on the line? Or do they just dislike the other side? When asked about his policy positions, Donald Trump went so far as to say “my voters don’t care and the public doesn’t care.”

But my research finds that policy does matter to voters — and that people get much more politically involved when they expect politicians to get things done.

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People vote when they expect important policy changes

Just before the 2020 presidential election, I surveyed 1,000 Americans as part of the Cooperative Election Study, which is an opt-in, nationwide survey conducted online by YouGov. I wanted to learn about how much of a difference people thought electing Biden or Trump would make. To find out, I asked people to tell me the percentage chance that Biden would implement each of eight important policies, and then asked the same questions for Trump.

People had high expectations. On average, respondents thought that if Biden won, there was a 66 percent chance of a federal $15 minimum wage. If Trump won, people thought there was a 69 percent chance of a nationwide ban on third-trimester abortions.

I then calculated the difference between how people answered each question for Biden and Trump. For example, someone may have believed that there was a 50 percent chance Biden would raise the minimum wage to $15, but just a 5 percent chance that this would happen under Trump. In this case, the gap between what that person expected from the two candidates was 45 percentage points. When I average across all of the issues, I find that people who voted — as confirmed by voter files — expected about a 16 percentage point larger policy gap between Biden and Trump.

Beliefs about the policy gap between the candidates better predicted voting than strongly identifying as a Democrat or Republican, ideology, interest in politics, education, or even having voted in 2016. In fact, people with high expectations were about 30 percent more likely to vote. These results tell us that people are motivated to participate when they expect that the parties will pass dramatically different policies. But are those expectations realistic?

Voters overestimate how different the parties really are

In other research, I’ve found a key reason voters have such high expectations for partisan politics. I show that a psychological bias called focalism causes us to believe that the parties disagree more than they really do. Focalism is the tendency to confuse how much attention something gets with how important that thing actually is.

Think back to the 2020 election. The news media tend to focus our attention on political differences. Because of that focus on conflict, it’s easy to remember that Biden and Trump had completely opposing positions toward the construction of a border wall with Mexico. What you may not remember is that Trump and Biden took the same position on many issues. Both candidates supported paid family and medical leave, both supported withdrawing troops from the Middle East, and both opposed a wealth tax. Those issues matter.

But if you only pay attention to conflict, you’ll overestimate how much we really disagree. To understand how high the stakes really are, you have to think about both the policies we’re divided over and all of the other issues parties agree on that get less media coverage.

One week before the Biden/Trump election I conducted an online survey; I asked about 2,000 Americans about policy agreement and disagreement between the candidates. But there was a twist. I focused some people’s attention on issues that Biden and Trump agreed on. The other group’s attention was directed toward those policies the candidates’ disagreed on.

Focusing attention in this way changed how people thought about the candidates. Respondents were 27 percentage points more likely to say that Biden and Trump were “extremely different” when they focused on policy conflict rather than consensus. People whose attention was drawn to policy conflicts also felt more hostile to their political opponents — not just the candidates but also the opposing party’s supporters. These results tell us that by not thinking about all of the points of consensus between the parties we overestimate how different Democrats and Republicans really are.

Why resentful rural Americans vote Republican

Will people keep voting if their expectations have been too high?

Year after year, politicians tell us that this is the most important election of our lifetime. About 70 percent of Americans agreed in 2020, and 66 percent felt similarly back in 2004. But maybe this really is the most important election of your lifetime — just as every election seems, until the next one comes around.

Democracy depends on people believing that the stakes are so high that it is worth the time and effort to participate. Hoping for dramatic policy change may be one way to motivate people to vote. And people do think the policy stakes are high. I found that on average, respondents thought that there was a 59 percent chance that Biden would secure Medicare-for-all if he was elected. That belief may have motivated them to vote, whether for or against him. But will people keep turning out if they compare what was actually delivered to what they had hoped for or feared?

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Curtis Bram (@curtisgbram) is a PhD candidate at Duke University.

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