Elections are a pillar of American democracy. But for many Americans today, our democratic process feels under siege.

A divided electorate and intense partisanship have led to a tense public mood where feelings of polarization run deep. People are now more attached to their party affiliation than any other social identifier – like race and religion – according to Stanford scholar Shanto Iyengar. He argues that this only amplifies polarization further. 

Meanwhile, the internet has changed how information – essential to a healthy democracy – is being shared.

Reports of fake news, propaganda from the United States and abroad and algorithms deciding what information we see has led some people – including Stanford Law Professor Nathaniel Persily – to question what can influence democratic processes in the age of the internet.   

In addition, the surprise victories in the last election spurred a debate about how information about the American electorate is gathered as well as the ways in which it is covered in the media.  

As the 2018 U.S. midterm elections approach, how can we better understand how these issues affect politics and decision-making today? Stanford scholars from across the social and political sciences are working together to explain how these processes unfold.

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A country divided?

The American public believes that it has polarized. But according to Stanford political scientist Morris P. Fiorina, political attitudes look much like they did in the 1970s and 1980s – well before polarization was widely discussed in political discourse.

Instead, said Fiorina, what Americans see is partisan sorting by their elected officials.

Political party affiliation has become the most distinctive part of a person’s identity today, said political communication scholar Shanto Iyengar, and succeeds all other identifiers, like race, religion or ethnicity.

What led to Americans feeling so polarized, and passionately so? How is polarization perpetuated? Here are Stanford scholars’ research about this phenomenon:

Political parties more polarized than voters

The nation is no more politically divided than it was in the 1970s, despite how things might appear in the news. Instead, the political parties have sorted into narrow groups.

Do you discriminate along party lines?

A Stanford study hints at the broad consequences of political polarization.

Stanford experts discuss the deep political divide in the U.S.

Historic presidential election reveals a country and its electoral system in turmoil, Stanford experts say.

Why Protesters Could Swing the Midterm Elections

A new study shows that both liberal and conservative protests have had a real impact on U.S. House elections.

Political party identities stronger than race or religion

Stanford scholar Shanto Iyengar finds that the strength of people’s attachment to their political parties surpasses affiliations with their own race, religion and other social categories.

Stanford expert examines roots of America’s divide

Stanford law expert Mugambi Jouet analyzes what has led to the current political divide in America and what separates the United States from other Western countries in a newly published book.

Highways erected roadblocks to opportunity

A Stanford political scientist shows how the American highway system has created affluent Republican suburbs, increased an urban-suburban political divide and led to reduced investment in urban infrastructure.

African Americans in the Republican Party represent a range of political thinking, Stanford research shows

Sociologist Corey D. Fields finds that some African-American Republicans see issues of race and racism as more of a problem in America than others.

Student politician goes cross-country

ASSU Senator Matthew Wigler, ’19, took a road trip last summer to America's swing districts to learn about the voters who reject partisanship in a time of great political polarization.

What does Donald Trump mean for our two-party political system?

Political economist David Brady talks party polarization, third-party chances and what to expect in 2018.

Welfare opposition linked to threats of racial standing

Research co-authored by sociologist Robb Willer finds that when white Americans perceive threats to their status as the dominant demographic group, their resentment of minorities increases. This resentment leads to opposing welfare programs they believe will mainly benefit minority groups.

Perceived threats to racial status drive white Americans’ Tea Party support, Stanford scholar says

In five experiments, Stanford sociologist Robb Willer found that popular support for the Tea Party derives in part from perceived threats to the status of whites in America.

A decision on gerrymandering: How the courts could change voting

In this Q&A, constitutional expert and former Stanford President Gerhard Casper discusses how the U.S. could change the way it draws electoral districts to improve the system as a whole.

Nate Persily on race and redistricting

In this Q&A, voting rights and redistricting expert Professor Nate Persily discusses the importance of a 2017 SCOTUS decision.

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News in the age of the algorithm

One defining issue that emerged from the 2016 election, and salient again in 2018, is ensuring that the flow of information that contributes to a healthy democracy is not a hoax or “fake news” – false information usually intended for political or commercial advantage.

Stanford researchers have been studying the prevalence of “fake news,” as well as understanding the ways in which information spreads in the digital media age, such as personalized algorithms and clickbait headlines. Some Stanford faculty are also exploring ways to help news and tech industries deal with these challenges.

Here are Stanford scholars’ work on this issue:

Fact checkers outperform historians when evaluating online information

A new report from the Stanford History Education Group finds that fact checkers read less but learn more – far outpacing historians and top college students.

A brief history of fake news

Journalist and Stanford alum Ted Koppel talks about how the democratization of media has undermined the freedom of the press and democracy itself.

Study suggests Facebook’s war on fake news is gaining ground

Stanford economist Matthew Gentzkow is shedding light on a key question: Are Facebook’s countermeasures making a difference?

Stanford study examines fake news and the 2016 presidential election

Fabricated stories favoring Donald Trump were shared 30 million times, but the most widely circulated hoaxes were seen by only a small fraction of Americans.

The risk of ‘clicky’ content

Scintillating headlines draw readers, but there’s a better way to win audiences.

This just in: Fake news probably has less impact than you think

By a large margin, more people saw actual election news, not the fabricated kind.

Can democracy survive the internet?

An excerpt from an essay written by Professor Nathaniel Persily in the Journal of Democracy.

Data analytics, app developers, and Facebook’s role in data misuse

Daphne Keller discusses how data is collected by Facebook and used by its app developers.

What this Stanford scholar learned about clickbait will surprise you

With real-time web analytics, journalists and editors now know more about traffic to their stories than ever before. But it doesn’t always result in the best stories.

Are influencers overrated?

A new study questions the effectiveness of targeting “hubs” at the center of social networks.

How much is your private data worth – and who should own it?

In an ideal world, consumers would control the rights to their data but would also be able to sell it broadly.

Which is more fair: A human or a machine?

A team of researchers harness the variability of human decision making to compensate for two flaws in machine-learning models: factoring in the unknown and the unknowable.

Algorithms reveal changes in stereotypes

New Stanford research shows that, over the past century, linguistic changes in gender and ethnic stereotypes correlated with major social movements and demographic changes in the U.S. Census data.

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The political horse race

During election season, it is common to see blow-by-blow coverage about the popularity between two candidates: How many points is she ahead? Who is slipping behind? Can he pull a surprise lead on election night?

Also known as horse race journalism, these stories tend to focus more on polling data than policies, competition than competence. According to research by Stanford scholars, there are spillover effects when viewing elections through a lens of polling popularity.

Here are some findings on the predicaments and unintended consequences of election forecasting:

How polls influence behavior

New research says polling data helps voters get the information they need to make decisions.

Stanford experts discuss polling challenges during the 2016 presidential election cycle

The polls leading up to the Nov. 8 presidential election showed Clinton with a clear lead, but Trump won the election. The reasons for that discrepancy range from who participates in polls to statistical errors.

Election 2016: An odd blip or a fundamental shift in American politics?

A Stanford scholar examines how we got to Trump and what it means for our future.

What March Madness tells us about forecasting

Stanford’s Amy Zegart argues that the prediction business is getting easier.

How does the media influence political behavior?

A political economist says an effective media sector makes politicians less likely to pander.