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CNR Faculty Grade the Midterm Elections

November 21, 2018

On Wednesday, November 14, CNR hosted a thought-provoking lecture on the results of the 2018 mid-term election. Co-presenters Dr. Stephen O’Rourke, Associate Professor of Psychology, and Dr. Daniel McCarthy, Associate Professor of Political Science and chair of the Division of Social Sciences, broke down the factors that they thought played a role in voter turnout, the election process, the strategies used by the two major parties, and the results.  

McCarthy and O’Rourke explained that going into every election the general public is inundated with messages designed to gain favor and drum up more votes on Election Day. These messages are part of a greater strategy designed to call attention to certain issues over others. This year some of the bigger hot points emphasized by the two major political parties included healthcare, immigration, employment, and a variety of women’s equity issues. This strategy to energize voters was particularly successful this year as the election drew a record turnout of voters for a mid-term election, resulting in a shift in the balance of power in the House of Representatives, from Republican to Democratic control, while Republicans increased their majority in the Senate. Additionally, the election resulted in national historic firsts, with women and minority candidates earning more seats than ever before.

McCarthy said that while significant in many ways, this election was also unusual. “The U.S. has a traditionally low turnout for elections. And while still low overall, this year, we had a 49 percent turnout. This is significant because by comparison, some presidential elections get just over 50 percent voter turnout. So really, this election has one of the highest rates for participation we have seen in a very long time, and certainly the most we have seen for a mid-term election.” He added that voters increased across most demographic groups including gender, region, education (college educated and non-college educated), and age groups.

O’Rourke delved into some of the psychological deciding factors including the impact certain social issues have on individuals, which in turn can lead to quick, emotion-based decisions based on social association.

“People are efficient at breaking up into groups and fall into an ‘either or’ mentality— us or them, black or white, Republican or Democrat,” said O’Rourke, further explaining that on a cognitive level, “people are hard wired to function with short cut thinking, meaning we make quick decisions more often than we make the more thought out decisions. So we have to wonder exactly how these emotional, quick or short cut decisions, come into play when pressing the button at the polls.”