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Sociologist Daniel Laurison ’99 Explains — and Upends — Political Primary Narratives

Daniel Laurison '99

For all the ink spilled on political campaigns, the careers made and broken, it’s still really hard to measure their managers’ impact.

And for all the emphasis placed on polls and the wind they can put behind a candidate, they’re still just snapshots that range from a person’s fixed preference to a vague impression.

Right now, those are two thoughts on the top of mind for Assistant Professor of Sociology Daniel Laurison ’99, who explores politics, inequality, and how social position shapes how people view the world. He is immersed, personally and professionally, in the 2020 Democratic primaries in the run-up to November’s general election, which reflect and recontextualize his scholarly interests.

“So much of how people choose candidates is idiosyncratic or comes down to a whole bunch of things that are hard to predict or analyze,” says Laurison, author of The Class Ceiling: Why It Pays to Be Privileged. “Who’s in the lead right now can shape how people think about who they might vote for. But by next week, that could be totally different, which is hard to wrap your mind around.”

Laurison recently sat down to discuss his upcoming book on how campaign professionals shape politics (or not); how class position affects one’s vote; the Pennsylvania Participation Project, his examination of why so many people feel disconnected from politics; the Bernie Sanders surge; and more.

How is your manuscript coming along, and what have you found?

I’m looking at how campaign professionals view their work and shape the politics that we get. One of the top takeaways is that in general elections, it tends to be really hard to know how much any given thing that any given campaign does determines the final outcome. And that’s counterintuitive because when you look at Trump vs. Clinton in 2016, there was a winner. Somebody must have done something for Trump to win and Clinton to lose. But both according to campaign professionals and scholarship that looks at how campaigns work, a lot of it is really contingent. It’s hard to predict.

I talked to a Republican political professional in 2017 who said something along the lines of, “Well, [Clinton’s ‘Stronger Together’ tagline] was never very clear. Together for what? Would having a different message have made the difference? Who knows? And anybody who tries to tell you they know is basically blowing smoke. Anything could have made the difference, and nothing could have made the difference.”

How accurate are the notions of how class position can impact voting?

There’s this narrative of the economically precarious or financially insecure, the working-class whites, who really love Trump. The extent to which that’s true and to which that’s an important way to understand the outcome, though, I see as highly debatable. If you split white people into whether they have a college degree, it’s absolutely true that those without one were, by far, the most likely to vote for Trump. And that, on average, people with a degree earn more than people without one. But if you actually look at measures of economic precarity or financial insecurity, and how they relate to Trump’s support among white people, you see the most economically precarious were actually some of the most anti-Trump. There’s not this steep curve of, the poorer you are, the more likely you are to support Trump. [For more, Laurison recommends a Data for Progress blog post on identifying the working class.]  

Also, only about a third of adults have a college degree. And among those who don’t, there’s huge variance with income. People own car dealerships, there are plumbers making $100,000 a year, etc. The biggest predictor — and there’s been lots of studies that show this really clearly — of Trump’s support among white people was basically: How racist are you? And that cuts across the class lines pretty clearly. It was a substantial number of people who would be better served by more redistributive policies who voted against some version of their economic interests, which we discussed in my Working Class and the Politics of Whiteness class here last semester.

How would you describe the Pennsylvania Participation Project?

It’s really a set of research approaches to get at the barriers to poor and working-class people actually making sense of and engaging with politics. What are people saying and thinking and feeling when they look at what campaigns are doing to connect with them, or when they are a person that campaigns don’t try to connect with?

We’ve done something like 100 interviews so far and might also do some focus groups to really try to get at this. For lots of people, politics looks like a game played between elites or by other kinds of people. They relate to politics kind of like how I relate to football: I don’t understand it. It’s not appealing to me. I have some sense that it might matter in some ways, but the details are not my problem. So the point is to get at that more deeply and see what people are doing to try to connect those people to politics. Because unlike football, political issues like health care really can make a big difference in people’s lives.

What can be done to engage some of these voters?

One thing Trump did in 2016 that I think was horrible in the sense that he was saying morally repugnant things, but wonderful in that I think politicians should do this more, is holding rallies all over the country in places where politicians almost never visit. I think that’s part of what drew people to him: that he was in their town, talking to them directly, saying, “We’re in this together, against those elites that don’t care about you.” And I think that resonated with people, though the empirical evidence is mixed.

That willingness to spend that much time just talking with whoever showed up has been missing from our politics. And that’s something I hope will be different on both sides in 2020. Certainly, Bernie Sanders is really working with social movement organizations and thinking hard about engaging people who have been disengaged from politics, along with organizations around the country that have been working at this for decades or that just sprung up after 2016. So I think that’s really good.

What do you make of Sanders’s early success in the primaries?

One of the things I’ve noticed is something of a parallel to Trump’s rise in 2016. One of the main reasons he got the nomination was the lack of a consensus among the party elites or the voters about who else was the right option. In many ways, our politics are actually just a perverse consequence of our winner-take-all system in these contests.

I don’t recall there ever being a majority of Republicans who supported Trump in the primary. There was a plurality, because the people who were opposed to him were split among a whole bunch of other candidates. And we’re seeing a version of that with this Democratic primary so far. It might be that Sanders’s movement is able to win the nomination, which a lot of people would be thrilled about. But a big part of that could still be that the people who didn’t want the most radical or most-left candidate couldn’t agree on the best alternative. Or … he could win the nomination with an actual majority of voters, or someone else could win with a plurality or a majority. It’s all still developing.

How much stock should we put in polls?

A point I make in my Intro to Research Methods classes all of the time, and on Twitter, is how important it is to consume polling data thoughtfully. People answer polling questions in different ways. When some people answer a polling question about their favorite candidate, what they’re saying is, “This is the guy I can think of at the moment.” Or they only have a vague impression of the candidates.

We often think of polls as revealing people’s deep, true, fixed preferences about the world, but they’re snapshots. They’re estimates. We don’t know whether any one person is saying, “I am 100% certain, barring any new information I might possibly get, this is how I would vote,” or “You want an answer, I pick Biden.” Also, polls are small samples, weighted by the pollsters’ guess about what the electorate is going to look like. So if the electorate looks really different than the pollsters expect, if more poor and working-class people turn out than usual, more Black and Brown people, then you get a really different outcome. You only really know how the election will go once the votes are counted.

Daniel Laurison ’99 teaches popular courses on the foundations of sociology, research methods, and elections and political participation, among others. His research draws upon a wide array of methods, from in-depth interviews to large-scale surveys.  

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