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“Like They’ve Never, Ever Seen in This Country”? Political Interest and Voter Engagement in 2016

A new paper by Markus Prior, fall 2016 Joan Shorenstein Fellow and Professor of Politics and Public Affairs at Princeton University, and Lori D. Bougher of Princeton University, compares levels of political involvement in the 2016 presidential election to previous election cycles.

The paper, written at the Shorenstein Center and published in Public Opinion Quarterly, finds that contrary to the narrative of record-breaking attention to the Trump candidacy, the public’s interest and engagement in the fall of 2016 were similar to other recent elections. (It was during the primaries that political involvement in 2016 stood out more.) This conclusion emerges from an analysis of turnout statistics, survey questions by the Pew Research Center and the American National Election Study measuring political interest among the American public, and Nielsen audience estimates of television viewing.

Historically typical levels of political interest may hide subgroup changes that cancel each other out. Examining subgroups that figured prominently in accounts of the 2016 campaign or were thought to have been particularly energized by Barack Obama in 2008 and 2012—men without a college education, African Americans, and young people—finds limited evidence for differential political interest trends. African Americans’ campaign interest and turnout did drop compared to 2008 and 2012. But in the opposite direction of the going narrative, young people showed relatively high political involvement.

Read the paper in Public Opinion Quarterly.