Emerging from Election Day, there’s a pull to focus on winners and losers, red versus blue, seats gained and lost. Yes, an election is about selecting leaders and weighing in on state and local initiatives, but it’s also an opportunity to listen to voters. Their personal struggles and values show up on their ballots.
The concerns of 2020—and the last four years—may not have translated into landslide election victories or down-ballot waves, but Americans’ voting decisions can tell us plenty about the problems our communities face and the opportunities for a better path forward.
Regardless of how election results finally come together, what we can learn from voters is this: To change hearts, minds, and lives, we must begin in our neighborhoods.
The national mood has been in decline for months, and election polling from Heart+Mind Strategies suggests Americans’ votes expressed just how discouraging and difficult this year has been. On top of a major public health crisis, people have felt their economic situations worsening. In the past three months alone, 45% of Americans have said they received aid, and 44% said they delayed or reduced spending.
This economic reality is even more grim when compared to voters’ reactions on Super Tuesday. Since March, there has been a nine-point jump in the number of voters reporting a worsening personal economic situation (25% on Super Tuesday up to 34% on November 3-4, 2020). Between March and November, there was an even larger decline among voters who had indicated improving economic situations: 43% said on Super Tuesday that their economic situation had gotten better. As of November 3-4, this percentage had dropped 12 points to just 31% of voters.
The day-to-day strain of economic uncertainty has gone hand-in-hand with a growing sense that our country is on the wrong track. This feeling is prevalent among 62% of voters—a seven-point increase from March 2020 when 55% of voters said they felt the country was headed in a bad direction. This concern showed up strongly among Americans who voted for Biden (91%), as well as Americans who identified as Democrat (90%) or Independent (70%). It’s a worry also prevalent among certain minorities (80% of African Americans, 72% of Asians) and students (73%).
So, in this election season, the country has found itself in a place where trust in Washington, DC, is at an all-time low. Six out of 10 Americans say they have no trust in Washington to do what’s right, and while the pandemic certainly did no favors for Washington’s trustworthiness, this attitude tracks closely with the national mood of the last several years. Pew Research Center reports trust in the federal government has hovered around a historic low for decades. According to their data, only 20% of Americans have said they trust the federal government to do the right thing “just about always” or “most of the time.”
This lack of trust is clearly eroding Americans’ confidence in our leaders and in our ability to solve problems. Sixty-five percent of Americans have gone so far as to say that our government is broken.
Coming out of the election, Heart+Mind Strategies asked voters which issue they personally wanted the new president and Congress to focus on moving forward. The answer was overwhelming: Restore honesty and trust to government and government officials (79% of voters).
Furthermore, a majority of Americans (78%) want to pursue common ground and embrace a focus on American principles like liberty and individualism. Forty-three percent of voters said they want a government that seeks consensus among a majority of Americans.
Polling shows the economy would be a good place to start. Growing the economy rivals trust in government as a top priority for voters (77%), and most Americans are eager to create more jobs that give people meaningful work opportunities and greater financial security.
Nearly half of voters consider a free-market economy to be the best means of addressing our country’s issues.
Despite the national vote trending toward Biden, voters’ choices do not represent a mandate for Washington, DC, to get more involved in local problem-solving. Voter support for state and local solutions is just as strong, particularly among those who identify as Independent.
The people within think tanks and other local nonprofits have an advantage that DC politicians rarely do: We can see firsthand how problems affect the people in our states. We can meet them, hear their stories, and work alongside them to create relevant change. It’s mission-critical because if we want to see lives transformed—perhaps even our own—we must realize our lives are lived in our communities, not in DC.
This election season will eventually close, but we don’t need the final results to know what comes next: The Network’s greatest opportunity is to show Americans that the changes they want are more possible, more rapid, and more effective when they happen closer to home.
In light of voters’ concerns and behaviors, here are a few approaches nonprofit think tanks should consider to increase the positive difference they can make on the ground:
1. Show that keeping decisions local, where leaders are closer to the people they serve, is a good way to restore honesty and trust to government institutions.
As community institutions themselves, think tanks are well positioned to encourage elected officials to be transparent about government workings and to seek input and consensus from constituents in the solution-making process.
2. Champion the problem-solving capabilities of the people in your state.
Some of the best ideas for solutions come from individuals—especially the people affected by policy change or a lack thereof. Bring these people into conversations so they can have a say in shaping the future instead of handing over their hope and decisions to far-away leaders.
According to surveys from Pew Research Center, Americans of varying values and political viewpoints generally see citizen-led efforts as a positive way to address our challenges. Michael Dimock, president of Pew Research Center, observed, “Some believe their neighborhoods and local civic groups such as churches, libraries, and schools are key places where interpersonal trust can be rebuilt as people work side by side on local projects. They feel these local efforts could radiate upward to national activities.”
3. Relentlessly earn and cultivate the trust necessary for productive collaboration.
If voters have given any kind of mandate, it’s that it will be imperative to manage our reputations well. Making a difference in our states—the kind that will “radiate upward”—will require cultivating trust in the relationships of our own that we are building with community members and local leaders. We must clearly articulate the “why” behind our work and show, not merely claim, the genuine connections we have within our communities.
4. Understand the nuances of the communities you need to reach.
Voter behavior in this election suggests there’s no national realignment shaping up; rather, micro-coalitions are forming among voters connected by geography, level of education, multicultural interests, and so on.
At the same time, we can no longer think of certain demographic groups as sharing the same values and voting tendencies. Millennials, women, Latinos, and African Americans are just a few groups whose voting behaviors and top issues don’t follow party lines cleanly. Many of these voting populations showed shifting support in the 2020 election.
To engage communities genuinely and productively, it will be critical to set our assumptions aside and resist the temptation to look at groups of voters monolithically.
State Policy Network partnered with Heart+Mind Strategies to track American voters’ opinions through the 2020 election season. This data is from Heart+Mind Strategies FirstView 2020 National Post-Election poll, conducted on November 3-4, 2020, through an online survey (n=2,005).