As voters prepare for a likely second presidential election between President Joe Biden and former President Donald Trump, the nation’s political and social divisions have expanded beyond government-centric election issues like the economy to more personal matters of identity.

Lynn Vavreck, UCLA’s Marvin Hoffenberg Professor of American Politics and Public Policy, helps us unpack this. She is an expert on campaigns, elections and public opinion, with an emphasis on how candidate behavior affects voters. She has researched campaign advertising, survey methods, politics and the media, and how the state of the economy affects elections.

Her most recent book, “The Bitter End: The 2020 Presidential Campaign and the Challenge to American Democracy, co-authored with UCLA political scientist Chris Tausanovitch, has drawn observations and insights from the Democracy Fund + UCLA Nationscape Project, a wide-ranging weekly public opinion survey of the American electorate conducted in the years leading up to and after the 2020 presidential election.

She is the author or co-author of several other books, including “Identity Crisis: The 2016 Presidential Campaign and the Battle for the Meaning of America” and “The Gamble: Choice and Chance in the 2012 Presidential Election.” Political consultants on both sides of the aisle refer to her work on political messaging in “The Message Matters” as required reading for presidential candidates. 

She is a recipient of the Andrew F. Carnegie Prize in the Humanities and Social Sciences, a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and a contributor to the New York Times.

Vavreck discusses the top issues influencing voters in 2024, including Trump’s legal cases and her advice for undecided voters.

Lynn Vavreck, Marvin Hoffenberg Professor of American Politics and Public Policy at UCLA
Lynn Vavreck, Marvin Hoffenberg Professor of American Politics and Public Policy at UCLA

What is calcification, and how is this a helpful lens for understanding what is to come in the 2024 presidential election?

Politics feel stuck, something my colleagues and I call calcification. Calcification is like “polarization plus.” It’s not just that the parties are further apart, or just more polarized than ever before; each party is also more homogenous. On top of that, more personal, emotional, identity-inflected issues — like religious tests to enter the country, reproductive rights and immigration, as opposed to issues centered on the role and size of government — are the dimension on which politics is being contested, and this new dimension is made up of issues on which most people will not entertain a vote for the other side. Add that to the relatively equal power of the two major political parties over the last eight or so years, and we get to where we are today, with politics feeling stuck.

Calcification doesn’t mean the same side wins every time. It means elections are going to be very close, and small things can determine the outcome. It also means that parties are not likely to alter their stances on these identity-inflected issues. Why should they? Their party wins — or almost wins — every time.

The stock market is up, inflation is apparently down, unemployment is down. But economic inequality is growing and most working people are feeling the sting of cost-of-living increases. How will the economy, or talk of the economy, shape this election cycle? How will this differ from the 2020 election?

The actual state of the nation’s economy is always important to election outcomes. Even though identity-inflected issues have surpassed issues like taxes and social security as the most important to our politics post-2016, the marginal voter is likely to be swayed by the nation’s economy. This is not so much the voter’s assessment of the economy, but the actual growth rate or income change rate. Trump is likely to remind voters they were better off when he was president — this is not untrue for most people. Still, growth is up, so I suspect Biden will get a small boost — but a small boost might be pivotal in a close election.

How will Trump’s and Biden’s rhetoric over the next eight months address the topic of border enforcement and immigration to appeal to voters? How will political ads play a factor?

Immigration is one of the major issues leading to the calcification of politics. Biden managed to put a strong bipartisan immigration plan to Congress, which might have neutralized Trump’s appeal on the issue, but Trump pressured Republicans in Congress to stop Biden’s reform plan.

What Trump missed in this calculation was that having Biden out on the campaign trail offering the same solutions as Trump essentially neutralizes the issue. Of course, Trump will try to blame Biden for not solving the problem, but Biden will try to explain that Trump stopped the solution to get a political win. This will be a complicated argument for Biden to make. I suspect a lot of Trump’s ads will be about this. This topic is only made more salient to people when states clash with the federal government over enforcement, as is happening right now in Texas.

A growing number of Latino voters are voting Republican, especially in key states like Texas and Florida. Why is this the case? Does this have to do with immigration or other issues? Is immigration an identity-inflected issue? How does the issue play out for Latino voters?

As with most voters, those who have moved toward Trump in the last eight years are conservative. This is true across many groups. Immigration, as an identity-inflected issue, is certainly a part of people figuring out that being conservative on this issue and voting for Democrats was a mismatch in 2016 and after.

How will the issue of reproductive rights and the Supreme Court overturning Roe v. Wade play a role in this election? How will this differ from the 2020 presidential election?

The reversal of Roe may mobilize more people who didn’t vote in 2020, but it is unlikely to make voters switch to the other side. A Republican who is pro-choice and is motivated to think more about that because of Dobbs (and entertain a vote for Biden) is a Republican who historically may not have cared very much about abortion policy, because if they did, given their position they wouldn’t be voting for Republicans. Still, small changes in votes could be pivotal in a close election, so this could be important.

How do you see the legal cases against Trump, many of which are expected to be delayed until after the election, impacting the presidential race? Will claims that Trump evaded the rule of law help tip the scale in either direction — Biden or Trump?

In close elections, anything can be pivotal, but it is seeming less likely by the week that any of these trials will be over before people start voting early in October. Each of these trials is an opportunity for Trump to stage campaign events. His supporters likely will stick with him throughout the summer and into fall. Nearly everyone who votes already has an opinion about Trump’s character, so even for marginal voters the effects may not be significant.

What other top issues will help decide the 2024 election?

The only issues that are likely to shape 2024 are identity-inflected issues and the economy. But anything that can move a few thousand voters at the margins is potentially pivotal. I doubt there are surprises lurking — big issues or strategies that will reshape things. The race is in place. Calcification means most people can’t entertain a vote for the other side, so 2024 should look a lot like 2016 and 2020.

What will it take for Biden or Trump to win that increasingly smaller pool of swing voters?

Trump probably has to continue to rally his base by appealing to identity-inflected topics and also blame Biden for what feels like a sluggish economy. Biden’s job is to sell his economic recovery from the pandemic and remind people how awful 2020 and its aftermath was — and how all of that feels like ancient history now (for most people). This will be hard because explaining why most people felt more flush under Trump relative to under Biden is complicated and requires explanation. And one of my favorite rules of politics is, “if you’re explaining, you’re losing.” 

What issues do Americans for the most part agree on, if any?

There are some policy positions that most people would like to see enacted into legislation. Universal gun background checks is the one I think of first. A majority of people in both parties want it. Paid maternity leave and a $15 minimum wage are others. None of them, however, are among the most important things voters care about right now.

Given your research, what advice do you have for the undecided voter?

Be sure you know what policies each party wants to enact into legislation on the issues you care about and vote accordingly. The parties want to build very different worlds; you don’t want to get this wrong.

Is there any other question regarding your research that you would want to be asked at this time by a reporter, given where we are in April of a presidential election year? If so, please pose the question and answer it.

I would only add that Trump has been in the news so frequently for the last several months because of his court cases that this has likely activated his supporters in a way that mimics the heart of a campaign period. Biden has not been in the same position, so one of the things that is possible is that Biden’s voters have not yet been activated to show up and support their candidate, because they haven’t had to yet. This may be why the gap in the polls is bigger than people expect it to be. The election is a long way off and the campaigns haven’t started yet. When they do, both sets of voters will engage, and then we will get a proper read on the state of the contest.