Creating a More Responsive Democracy: Journeying through the Electorate

April 18, 2024

In order to deeply explore what democracy means to Americans; in what ways it is working; where challenges and obstacles lie; and where improvements are most needed, we must first understand the attitudes and sentiments of the American electorate. Since its inception in 2019, Citizen Data has been striving to identify, explore, and reach key segments of the voting population. This article walks through that journey, highlighting key milestones in the process.

Written by Marie Staniforth

Exploring Nuanced Attitudes: Creating a Roadmap for the American Right

During the aftermath of the Trump presidency in 2021, Citizen aspired to identify, understand, and reach pragmatic voters on the Right; those Americans who can be engaged to help defend, preserve, and enhance our democracy. This aspiration was predicated on the assumption that reforms to address ideological extremism, partisan calcification, and media fragmentation require that we bring members of the Right into the pro-democracy coalition.

Our team of researchers and data scientists crafted a nuanced approach to transcend pro-Trump/anti-Trump binaries, delve beyond Independent and Republican labels, and unearth complex insights on the feelings, values, and attitudes of those on the American Right. Our comprehensive and sophisticated research methodology incorporated large-scale quantitative surveys to develop a rigorous segmentation, in-depth qualitative conversations to garner deep understanding, and modeling off of our proprietary voter-file data to predict voter behavior and add further nuance to the research.

The research identified three critical camps:

  • The Mobilization Group: those who have mixed feelings on Trump, trust the results of the 2020 election, and understand that voting rights are critical to our democracy. However, this group is jaded and needs to be mobilized. While this group can be found throughout the U.S., higher concentrations are located in the West and along the East Coast.
  • The Semi-Open Group: those who are highly persuadable. They are center-right voters who are conflicted but potentially reachable through strategic targeting and messaging. This group has non-conspiratorial concerns about election fraud and election integrity, and feel unable to trust mainstream sources due to bias. The semi-open group is scattered fairly evenly across the nation.
  • The Threat Group: those who are difficult to reach or move, and pose a threat to American democracy. 97% of this group are warm towards President Trump. They believe that the 2020 election results were stolen, think January 6th was justifiable, and trust dark web theories. Higher concentrations of “threat” conservatives are located in the rustbelt, the deep south, and throughout the Plains.

Taking A Layered Approach: Expanding Across the Full National Democracy Spectrum 

In 2022, we expanded our research by segmenting the American electorate across the full ideological spectrum, spanning across Left and Right. We sought to go beyond attitudes towards democracy and institutions, in favor of traits which speak to actionable support. We therefore took a layered approach, incorporating attitudes towards conflicting others and levels of willingness to bridge divides. This holistic design allowed us to create a pro-democracy spectrum rooted in emotion, education, access and ultimately, action.

The segmentation identified and explored:

  • Democracy Defenders: those who trust in the 2024 elections, have productive feelings towards those on the other side of the spectrum, and are willing to help reduce division,
  • Democracy Shifters: those who have doubts about 2024, have mixed feelings towards those on the other side of the spectrum, and are mixed on reducing division. This group is at a crossroads; they can either be persuaded to help defend democracy, or they can become disaffected and inhibit it, and
  • Democracy Inhibitors: those who distrust in 2024, have destructive feelings towards those on the other side of the spectrum, and are not willing to help reduce division.

We found that those who are most likely to defend our democracy – both in terms of combating polarization, and in supporting our institutions – are racially diverse female political moderates. On the Left, they are more likely to lean older (65+), whereas on the Right, they are more likely to skew younger (18-34).

Interestingly and importantly, our research illuminated significant differences between Shifters and Inhibitors on both sides of the ideological spectrum. While the primary obstacle facing Shifters on the Right is the mis and disinformation which lends to their doubts about institutions, on the Left, the greater issue is a hesitancy to engage with the other side.

These differences play out at a more exaggerated level among Inhibitors. For instance, Right-leaning Inhibitors are both distrustful of elections and angry towards the other side, whereas Left-leaners are angry towards the other side, but largely trusting of elections.

Research on how to reach and persuade our segments garnered actionable insights around how to increase trust in elections and trust in the other side:

  • “Everyday experts” such as doctors, nurses, school teachers and military members as effective trusted messengers,
  • Debunking – or myth-busting – as more impactful than prebunking or more proactive measures, and
  • Localized, humanizing messaging frames as key to increasing trust

Adjusting for the Political Climate: Refining our National Democracy Segmentation 

In response to persistent concerns of political violence heading into the 2024 election cycle, we refined our segmentation at the end of 2023 in order to incorporate attitudes towards election-related violence. By combining trust in 2024 and a willingness to engage with the other side with views on election-related violence, our updated democracy spectrum is better able to meet the urgency of this moment.

We used an index scoring approach in order to add nuance and complexity to our segmentation.

Encouragingly, over seven in ten Americans (73%) strongly disagree that it is acceptable for citizens to respond with violence or force when they don’t trust election results.

In continued efforts to create nuanced and actionable findings, our 2024 research continues to delve into sub-segments within each of these, including:

  • Identifying and exploring how to reach less-engaged Defenders, who are most likely to be younger, diverse, Independents, who typically feel less informed than the average voter and perceive living in a democracy to be slightly less important than the average voter,
  • Distinguishing between Shifters who spread information (including mis and disinformation) from Shifters who consume it more passively. Spreaders are most likely to be older and more educated, whereas the latter group are most likely to be younger, less educated, and more moderate, and
  • Highlighting those Inhibitors who consider living in a democracy to be of importance, therefore demonstrating reachability. These reachable Inhibitors are most likely to rely on Fox News, Newsmax, and OAN, and skew middle-aged, female and suburban.

Data in Action:

By identifying and understanding those who can be mobilized and persuaded to defend democracy, as well as being aware of which sentiments and attitudes we need to challenge, we are better positioned to build a coalition of pro-democracy citizens across the ideological spectrum. As we continue to deepen our knowledge of the American electorate and unearth increasingly nuanced and complex findings, we will be better able to tailor our approach to unique constituencies within our democracy so that they can help us to defend it.

If you would like to learn more, or are interested in partnering with us on a custom research project, please submit a request through our website.

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