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Focusing on the Science of Politics

LSA Professor of Political Science Vincent Hutchings discusses the study of politics and ways that the midterm election can be examined through a scientific lens.
by Kashona Notah-Stevens
The U.S. midterm election is on November 8, 2022. 

Professor Vincent Hutchings’s research confronts big questions. His scholarship examines racial bias in politics, Black constituents and their influence on elections, party allegiances and how those might change, media representation, and racial equity. While Hutchings studies politics and political leanings, he also points out that political science is not meant to make an argument for a particular political party.  

“The advice I have for students is that political science is a great vehicle for bringing to bear the scientific method, especially in this polarizing time,” says Hutchings, the Hanes Walton, Jr. Collegiate Professor of Political Science and Afroamerican and African Studies, and an appointed University Diversity and Social Transformation Professor.

“It’s not to make you a stronger Republican or stronger Democrat. It’s instead to help you understand what is the right answer, or at least, what is the best answer, in light of employing the scientific method.”

The 2022 Midterm Election: Gen Z, Roe, and Climate Change

Hutchings—who was recently elected to the National Academy of Sciences—is following the November 8 midterm election in the United States closely. He points out that in every midterm election since the Civil War, the sitting president’s party has lost seats, with three exceptions: in 1934 during the Great Depression, in 1998 during events that led up to the impeachment of Bill Clinton, and in 2002 following the 9/11 attacks.

“All three of those exceptions are associated with cataclysmic economic, social, or political events,” says Hutchings. “The thing that seems to short circuit this usual pattern is when something big happens in American history. Maybe January 6th is one of those things. Maybe it’s not.”

Hutchings additionally notes that the Supreme Court's overturning of Roe v. Wade, which according to a recent study at the Pew Research Center, about six in 10 Americans disagree with, is another possibility for surprise. “Is that going to upset the pattern? I don’t know, so I’ll be looking to see.”

Another area Hutchings is watching, particularly in relation to Gen Z, is climate change. With nearly all Republicans voting against the most recent climate change bill, Hutchings believes that if they gain one or both chambers, voters can almost be certain that prospects for additional climate change legislation will be blocked.

Following Race and Ethnicity within Politics

Hutchings, who was the principal investigator at American National Election Studies (ANES) from 2010-2017, also considers race and politics. “The party system, more generally, in the United States is heavily racialized,” says Hutchings. “It’s so racialized that we almost don’t regard it as abnormal. But we should. [Black voters’] influence is pivotal because absent the near unanimous support that Black voters provide to the Democratic Party, [Democrats] cease to be a viable national party.” While data show that the majority of white voters in the United States are Republican, Hutchings points out that African Americans provide about 90 percent of their votes to Democratic candidates at all levels of government.

Hutchings further elucidates the fact that even if the Black vote were distributed more like the Latinx, Asian American and Pacific Islander, or Native American vote, Democrats would lose almost every election. Hutchings believes that this is something that voters should pay more attention to, and he’s curious to follow how things might play out on that front.

But Hutchings also recognizes that there is an often-marginalized populace in the country that does not vote. “Perhaps the American political system doesn’t represent them,” Hutchings says. “For those folks, I guess the first order of business is to adopt the posture that maybe there is something to that. As opposed to saying, Why do you think that? Let’s convince you that you’re wrong, so that we can get you to vote at election time, I believe that we should recognize not the deficiencies in the voters who believe that the system isn’t responsive, but perhaps that the deficiencies are in the system.”


Political science Prof. Vincent Hutchings. Photo courtesy of Vincent Hutchings.
Political science Prof. Vincent Hutchings. Photo courtesy of Vincent Hutchings.

Media Representation, Voting, and Inequality

Hutchings is also interested in mass media representation and how that influences voter behavior. He says that while there is clearly more representation of racial and ethnic minorities in popular culture, that increased representation can also create a false sense of equity.

“More of an effort to depict the vastness of racial and ethnic diversity in this country is a good thing, but what is not a good thing, is if it gives the impression, as I would argue that it does, that we are all just the same, that we’ve resolved these problems,” says Hutchings. “These problems have not been resolved, and we are not all the same. We are all humans, of course, but some humans have more rights and privileges than do others, and there is no point in pretending that is not true.”

With regard to voters, Hutchings is particularly interested in how the mass media can skew viewpoints by representing racial harmony without highlighting racial inequality. “That has implications for how people vote,” says Hutchings.   

Relatedly, Hutchings is working with U-M graduate students Kamri Hudgins, Zoe Walker, and Sydney Carr on a project called “If They Only Knew: Informing Blacks and Whites About the Racial Wealth Gap.” The project aims to help Americans understand issues of racial inequality, particularly in relation to the Black and white divide.

The study draws on data from the 2019 Survey of Consumer Finances, which shows that the median white family, where the head of household did not graduate from high school, has comparable levels of wealth to the median Black family, where the head of household graduated from college. It is a staggering difference.  

“We’ve run a number of studies, and we keep getting roughly the same result,” says Hutchings. “People think that the racial wealth gap is smaller than it is. But when we inform them of the truth, they readjust their impressions in the direction of recognizing the magnitude of that gap … but it almost never affects their policy preferences.”

For Hutchings, employing further methods of scientific inquiry is warranted. While he is following the midterm elections closely, he is also interested in better public understanding of racial and ethnic inequality. He sees it all as interconnected and is working with fellow researchers to show the ways in which that’s the case. 


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Release Date: 11/03/2022
Category: Faculty
Tags: LSA; Political Science; Afroamerican and African Studies; Social Sciences; Kashona Notah-Stevens; Becky Sehenuk Waite