New survey shows bipartisan support for independent investigations

November 16, 2018

By Mandira Banerjee | Originally published by Michigan News, November 16, 2018

ANN ARBOR—Democrats, Republicans and independents are all less likely to support candidates who would undermine the independence of law-enforced investigations, according to a new study from Bright Line Watch.

Brendan Nyhan, a professor at U-M’s Ford School of Public Policy, is one of four co-directors on the Bright Line Watch team, a group of political scientists who monitor the state of democracy in the United States.

“Republicans join Democrats and independents in punishing candidates who support political interference in law enforcement investigations, a finding that is relevant to the current controversy over Acting Attorney General Whitaker and Robert Mueller’s investigation,” Nyhan said.

The report, “Party, policy, democracy and candidate choice in U.S. elections,” shows that both Democrats and Republicans claim they support free elections—Republicans by combating voter fraud and Democrats by ensuring equal voting rights.

“The partisan divide is vast between those who worry about voter fraud and those who are concerned about equal access to the vote,” said Nyhan, adding that it is important to be clear that those two concerns are not equally empirically valid.

Nyhan said experts, judges and prosecutors have found no evidence of widespread voter fraud; it is exceedingly rare.

“By contrast, valid forms of voter identification are not equally distributed in the population,” he said. “The threat that those laws pose to the voting rights of historically disadvantaged groups is real. Our democracy needs to rebuild the bipartisan consensus around access to the franchise.”

According to the survey conducted right before the midterms, Republicans are nearly 9 percentage points less likely to select a candidate who wants to increase taxes on the wealthy, whereas Democrats are 11.5 percentage points more likely to select a candidate who wants to do so.

The report also found that partisanship and policy positions affect voters’ choices and that candidates’ stances on discrimination and affirmative action do matter. Republicans are nearly 4 percentage points less likely to select a candidate who wants the government to do more to protect minorities than one who thinks discrimination is less of a problem now than in the past. Democrats, in sharp contrast, are 13 percentage points more likely to select a candidate who wants the government to do more to protect minorities.

The survey was conducted in late October among 1,000 online participants, who were asked to choose between a series of paired hypothetical candidates with personal attributes and stances.

Forty-three percent of the respondents identified as Democrats or independents who lean Democratic, 35 percent identified as Republicans or independents who lean Republican, and 17 percent identified as independents who lean toward neither party.

Respondents were presented with 10 pairwise choices between candidates in a hypothetical upcoming election. Each candidate was described using eight characteristics: name, partisanship, positions on policies toward taxation and racial discrimination, and four positions reflecting democratic values.

Other authors of this Bright Line Watch survey are John Carey and Katherine Clayton of Dartmouth College, Gretchen Helmke of the University of Rochester, Mitchell Sanders of Meliora Research and Susan Stokes of the University of Chicago.

The report and survey are available on Bright Line Watch 

Brendan Nyhan is a professor of public policy at the Ford School. His research, which focuses on misperceptions about politics and health care, has been published the American Journal of Political Science, Journal of Politics, and the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, among other journals. Nyhan is also a contributor to "The Upshot" at The New York Times; a co-founder of Bright Line Watch, a watchdog group that monitors the status of American democracy; and a 2018 Andrew Carnegie Fellow.