What Did We Learn From the Midterm Elections?
What were the defining issues of the midterm elections? How did candidates shift their campaign strategy and messaging in response? And how can we all learn to move beyond the political sound bites and have meaningful conversations with each other about complex issues?
St. Olaf College students, faculty, and staff dove into answers for all of these questions at an undergraduate research conference December 8 titled “Information, Elections, and the Future of American Democracy.”
Hosted by the St. Olaf Institute for Freedom and Community, the conference featured 20 panel presentations from student researchers, a keynote event with speakers Renée DiResta and Sean Illing, and a civil dialogue session facilitated by Hagar Attia and Sarah Wolter.
Associate Professor of Political Science Chris Chapp, the Morrison Family Director of the Institute for Freedom and Community, says the goal of the conference was to highlight the ways St. Olaf students participated in civic processes during the 2022 midterm elections.
“The mission of the Institute is to support students as they learn to seek truth and produce knowledge on issues that are fundamental to democracy. This conference is a perfect example of the ways students were engaged in this process and eager to examine a variety of perspectives,” Chapp says.
Making Sense of the Midterms
On election day, students in Chapp’s Parties and Elections course gathered exit poll data from across the Second Congressional District, which featured one of the most competitive contests in the 2022 midterms. They then analyzed the data they gathered and presented their findings in a series of panel discussions at the December conference.
Forrest Dorsey ’24 was part of a team that examined how the state of the economy swayed the choices voters made at the polls. Not surprisingly, both the state of the national economy and the state of their own pocketbooks were top of mind for voters as they headed to the polls. When the team examined how partisanship impacted voters’ interpretation of the economy, the insight got a little more interesting.
“Republican voters were much more likely to defect from their typical party lines if they believed that the national economy had improved, and still pretty likely to defect if they believed that their financial situation had improved,” Dorsey says.
India Bock ’23 and Lissi Reid ’25 were members of a team that examined whether the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Roe v. Wade with its ruling in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization would make a difference in the midterms.
“In class we discussed how there is a consensus among many political science scholars that issue voting does not exist,” Reid says. She and her group members wondered if the Dobbs decision might prompt an exception to the rule. They were right.
“We found that voters heavily prioritized abortion as a defining issue of the midterms,” Bock says. “Over 30 percent of voters listed abortion as their ‘Most Important Issue,’ which was second only to the economy and inflation.”
Bock was also part of Chapp’s American Politics seminar that analyzed campaign rhetoric in the midterm elections. Using a complex database of campaign rhetoric that Chapp and his students have been carefully compiling since 2008, researchers in the class examined how candidates framed and talked about issues.
Expanding on her exit polling work, Bock used the data set to look at how male and female political candidates framed the issue of abortion. She found that in addition to unsurprising differences in the ways that Democrats and Republicans talked about abortion on the campaign trail, there were clear differences in the ways that male and female candidates in the same party talked about the issue as well.
“I found that compared to Democratic men, Democratic women were more likely to discuss abortion in the context of healthcare. Republican women were more likely to talk about Roe v. Wade as opposed to Republican men. These findings suggest that gender does impact the rhetorical choices made by candidates when deciding how to discuss abortion,” Bock says. She is extending her research on abortion framing through an independent research course with Chapp and another member of her seminar class, Cali Goulet ’23, this spring.
Another member of the seminar, Gretchen Ellis ’23, used the database to examine the campaign rhetoric used by candidates in ideologically mismatched districts — such as a Democrat running in a Republican district, or a Republican running in a Democratic district.
“I found that Democratic candidates in Republican districts shifted their rhetoric to be more conservative, while Republicans in Democratic districts continued to have conservative campaign rhetoric,” Ellis says.
She says these findings put further pressure on a long-held theory that politicians gravitate toward the positions favored by the median voter.
“I believe my research is a possible indicator as to why we did not see a ‘red wave’ as predicted by many pundits,” Ellis says. “Republicans needed to flip some of these Democratic districts, and not shifting rhetoric to match the district like Democrats did could have been a reason why they did not gain as many seats as predicted.”
As students presented their work, a team of faculty panelists asked questions and offered additional points for consideration. Ashley Sorensen, a political science faculty member at Macalester College who is completing her Ph.D. at the University of Minnesota, says St. Olaf students clearly demonstrated their knowledge of the field by conducting their own research with original data. “As both a student and educator, I was incredibly impressed with their creativity, statistical skills, and ease in which they presented their analysis,” she says. “I look forward to hopefully reading some of their papers in print!”
The St. Olaf students who participated in the research conference note that it provided excellent experience that will serve them well far beyond their political science courses.
Ellis plans to pursue a career in politics or political communication after graduating from St. Olaf, and is considering a master’s degree program in public administration. “Hands-on research like this is incredibly beneficial because it gives students the opportunity to explore areas or topics they are passionate about,” she says.
“I was excited to share the work we had done with my peers because we had novel data, and presented interesting findings that could have a potential impact in future elections,” Reid says. “Presenting at this conference took my understanding of the class content out of the classroom and allowed me to experience it in a real-life scenario.”
Lissi Reid ’25I was excited to share the work we had done with my peers because we had novel data, and presented interesting findings that could have a potential impact in future elections. Presenting at this conference took my understanding of the class content out of the classroom and allowed me to experience it in a real-life scenario.
Dorsey, who plans to attend law school after St. Olaf, says the undergraduate research conference provides great preparation for future careers. “This type of work is wonderful for gaining experience in collecting information, analyzing it, and presenting it to an audience in a way they will understand,” he says. “These skills are relevant to any career in law, business, or the sciences, where you will have to draw conclusions and deliver them to a larger audience.”
Talking About the Issues
Knowing the defining issues of an election year is one thing. Being able to talk about them — particularly with people who hold opposing views — in a constructive way is something else.
As part of the conference on “Information, Elections, and the Future of American Democracy,” the Institute hosted a Civic Dialogue Workshop led by Hagar Attia and Sarah Wolter, both faculty members in the Department of Communication Studies at Gustavus Adolphus College.
Together they led a dozen St. Olaf students through an interactive learning exercise. The session began with a lesson from Attia on the models of deliberative dialogue as a foundation of democratic practice. Students then practiced constructive political discourse by deliberating on free speech and an inclusive campus.
“Through our deliberative process, students were able to engage in a thoughtful conversation about what academic freedom looks like and the kind of community they want to cultivate,” says Attia, who has a Ph.D from the University of Maryland and studies fundamentalist argumentation.
Civil Dialogue Workshop Leader Hagar AttiaThrough our deliberative process, students were able to engage in a thoughtful conversation about what academic freedom looks like and the kind of community they want to cultivate.
Wolter, who has a Ph.D from the University of Minnesota and studies sports discourse and critical pedagogy, notes that students were engaged and thoughtful in their exploration of the context surrounding the issue.
St. Olaf Academic Civic Engagement Program Director Alyssa Melby helped organize the session, which she thought provided students with useful skills.
“Methodically working through various perspectives on an issue helps you begin to understand how complex the issues our society faces are and where every possible solution or action has benefits and drawbacks,” she says. “My hope is that students walked away from the workshop with a desire to have more nuanced conversations — not just with each other, but with people from various backgrounds — to begin to understand these complexities and how they impact real people.”
Academic Civic Engagement Program Director Alyssa MelbyMy hope is that students walked away from the workshop with a desire to have more nuanced conversations — not just with each other, but with people from various backgrounds — to begin to understand these complexities and how they impact real people.
Hearing from the Experts
In addition to hands-on learning, the research conference also featured keynote addresses by two people who are experts in the critical role that information plays in a democracy — and the dangers of disinformation.
Renée DiResta is the technical research manager at The Stanford Internet Observatory at Stanford University. She examines how platform algorithms and affordances impact users, especially regarding the spread of misinformation and conspiracy theories. She has led investigations on influence and manipulation propaganda within the Russian Internet Research Agency and the GRU, and has advised Congress and the State Department on these subjects.
Her work has been featured across many major media sources including the New York Times, Washington Post, Forbes, Wired, CNN, Yale Review, CNBC, The Atlantic, The Economist, Journal of Commerce, and many more.
Sean Illing is a writer for Vox and host of Vox Media’s “The Gray Area,” a podcast exploring culture, politics, and uncertainty. He was previously a professor of political science and philosophy at Louisiana State University and Loyola University of New Orleans. Before teaching, he served as a paramedic for the United States Air Force. Earlier this year, Illing published his second book, The Paradox of Democracy: Free Speech, Open Media, and Perilous Persuasion (co-authored with Zac Gershberg).
Both Illing and DiResta attended the panel presentations and offered critiques, and they met with students interested in media as well.
Watch their full event below. To hear from more thought leaders, join the Institute this spring for a speaker series on “The Challenge of Criminal Justice Reform in America” beginning February 27 and running through May 2.