COVID-19 and climate change: Maddie Pendolino ’21 asked voters what mattered most in a fraught year
Maddie Pendolino decided during her sophomore year at Princeton that she wanted to focus her senior thesis research on the 2020 U.S. presidential election. An avid follower of politics who volunteered for the re-election campaign of Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ), she knew that with President Donald Trump as the incumbent, the contest would be dramatic, unconventional and — for a politics major — fascinating.
“The opportunity to be a senior during a presidential election was something I didn’t want to pass up,” said Pendolino, who graduated from Princeton in May. “I originally wanted to focus on swing states in some way.”
But 2020 would turn out to be more turbulent than she or anyone expected: The global COVID-19 pandemic that has killed nearly 600,000 Americans, put millions out of work and disrupted daily life at a nearly unimaginable scale. The mass protests for racial justice following the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis. Deadly and destructive wildfires across the American West. The death of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg and the showdown over the appointment of Amy Coney Barrett.
As the news cycle seemingly turned out one bombshell story after another without relent, Pendolino found herself asking how the events of 2020 would influence the people’s vote for president.
For her senior thesis, Pendolino used the polling skills she learned during a 2019 internship with Change Research — a Bay Area-based polling firm — to conduct an online poll of 2,500 voters across the country. She asked about the events of 2020 and the long-term policy issues that most influenced people’s vote for president, from Trump’s handling of the pandemic and party allegiance, to their top policy priorities, such as climate change, foreign trade and racial equity.
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“All these things happening very close to the election just made my survey more interesting,” said Pendolino, whose work was supported by senior thesis funding from the High Meadows Environmental Institute (HMEI).
“When 2020 started to unfold, it changed the whole tide of how things would turn out,” she said. “Being able to hear from people soon after the election on how the turbulent events we all followed in the news and that impacted our lives actually played out in the voting booth was, from an academic point of view, really exciting.”
The coronavirus pandemic was the most decisive factor in how someone voted, Pendolino said. She found that a person who thought that Trump mishandled the coronavirus pandemic was 27% more likely to vote for President Joe Biden.
“For me, the most significant finding was the extent to which voters really punished Trump for his handling of the pandemic,” Pendolino said. “My analysis specifically focused on the performance of the incumbent rather than just COVID as an issue. I wanted to get much more detailed responses instead of asking roundabout questions.”
Pendolino said she was surprised by the extent to which climate change and climate policy topped other policy issues in influencing how people voted. Forty-four percent of respondents reported climate change as a top-five priority and 9% said it was their main priority.
“Climate change was a lot more indicative of vote choice than racial equity or health care,” Pendolino said. “The prominence of climate change suggests that it is coming to the forefront of politics and American elections. As climate change becomes more apparent, I hope it’ll be easier for voters to process how big of an issue it is — but I’m afraid by that time it might be too little, too late.”
Climate change was that uncommon policy issue that crossed party lines, Pendolino found. Yes, climate change and racial equity were the most important issues for Democrats, while Republicans tended to put more priority on foreign policy and trade.
But climate change was a top issue for 82% of respondents who voted for Biden versus 64% of Democrats. Among the 188 people who previously voted Republican but voted for Biden in 2020, 10% said climate change policy was the main reason.
“Being in support of climate change took away some of the potency for being a Democrat, meaning you weren’t just voting for Biden because you were a Democrat, but also because you supported climate change policy.”
Climate change is becoming more of a priority as younger people reach voting age and Pendolino’s survey results likely captured some of that dynamic, said her thesis adviser Brandice Canes-Wrone, the Donald E. Stokes Professor in Public and International Affairs and professor of politics.
“In the past four years, there have been major efforts to bring individuals to the polls who have not voted before, and that includes young voters who tend to be more concerned with the planet,” Canes-Wrone said. “There also has been much more of a focus on the environment in the media.”
The major issues affecting the outcome of the 2020 election were abundantly clear by the summer, which is actually relatively early, Canes-Wrone said. The 2020 election was less susceptible to the “sleeper” issues and “October surprises” that have hung over previous elections, she said.
What makes Pendolino’s work notable is the breadth of issues she included in her survey, Canes-Wrone said. “Maddie provided a very comprehensive look at a wide range of factors that the academic literature says should affect voting, instead of just one,” she said. “Her ability to move quickly and think about the types of policy issues — such as climate change — she wanted her survey to focus on was really impressive.”
Pendolino found that her respondents’ decisions were not simply driven by raw partisanship, but also by the policy issues included in her survey, Canes-Wrone said.
“Partisanship definitely mattered, but these other factors mattered, too. It fits with the view that presidents are held responsible for peace and prosperity, more so than any other elected office,” she said.
“You can think of Trump’s handling of the COVID crisis more broadly as a judgement on his competence in handling crises in general, a consideration that might transcend the 2020 election to affect future elections, even if 2024 is not about COVID,” Canes-Wrone said. “A different crisis could strike Biden.”
For Pendolino, her survey results were encouraging in the suggestion that our politics may not be as wholly tribal as it often seems — or as we’re often told, she said.
“It shows that despite what we hear from politicians and pundits, voters do have independent thought and will vote for issues that are important to them, rather than voting for their party because it’s their party,” Pendolino said.
“The issues won’t be more important than party for the majority of the electorate, but they have the potential to overcome party for certain voters,” she said. “And you only need 10% of the electorate to swing an election.”
About this series
Each year, the High Meadows Environmental Institute (HMEI) supports senior-thesis research by students from departments across the University. This story is part of a series exploring the disciplinary variety of HMEI-funded undergraduate research carried out by members of the Class of 2021.