One year ago, the Americans pictured here — Republicans, Democrats and independents — were among a group of voters feeling pretty good about the state of American democracy. They believed their differences weren’t so vast. They believed they could talk to one another. They thought compromise might even come of it.
They were part of an experiment that brought 526 Americans, demographically and politically representative of all registered voters, to a conference center outside Dallas last September. They spent several days debating climate change, the economy and immigration — mostly respectfully. And many left feeling hopeful that American politics writ large could resemble something so civil.
That was before the impeachment, the pandemic, the civil unrest and the recession. Before protesters clashed in Portland, Ore., and Kenosha, Wis., and before angry voters rallied against mask mandates and lockdowns. Now, in follow-up interviews a year later, some of the most optimistic voters in America sound, instead, despondent.
“It’s really unfortunate, outside of that bubble that we had in Dallas, seeing this untamed beast that is the real world,” said Keagan Casey, a 24-year-old Republican from Providence, R.I. “It just isn’t civil, it isn’t constructive, and it’s really not conducive to us moving forward as a country as united.”
Over this rancorous election year, however, the Stanford political scientists who conceived of this immersive lesson in deliberative democracy, called America in One Room, believe it continued to influence the voters.
In surveys conducted a year later by NORC at the University of Chicago, these voters said they paid more attention to the presidential campaign than a similar control group of voters. To a greater extent, they’ve disapproved of the government’s coronavirus response. And most strikingly, voters at the Texas event who placed themselves in the middle of the political spectrum were much more likely to say they supported Joe Biden — even to a degree that surprised the researchers.
We were there in Texas, too, and we took a portrait of nearly everyone who participated. This time, with their permission, we’ve grouped many of them by party identification, with a sample of their voting intentions in their own words. The result captures a mix of that Texas experience and the real world: American voters, still largely bound by their party alliances, but trying to reach a more reasoned decision.
Grouped together, these voters reflect broad demographic differences between the two parties. But each portrait also evokes, more than a tallied vote ever could, the individual behind the choice, beyond partisan bubbles.
Republican voters at the Texas event (a sample of them shown here) support President Trump by roughly 90 percent to 4 percent.
Mr. Casey, the Republican from Providence, is not what many people expect him to be. He is gay and, by his own description, very conservative — a combination he says even his own friends struggle to understand. He voted for Mr. Trump in 2016. But while he supported the president’s tax policies and Supreme Court nominees, he increasingly couldn’t support the man himself.
Then came the pandemic. “That’s what really was the nail in the coffin,” said Mr. Casey, who works in health care, coordinating clinical research. The president failed to adequately respond to the virus, he said. So Mr. Casey plans to write in Nikki Haley, the former ambassador to the United Nations and the kind of Republican — moderate and level-headed, in Mr. Casey’s estimation — he hopes he will one day be able to help elect.
Among Republicans we interviewed backing Mr. Trump, some said they’d grown more supportive of him over the past four years as he’d kept many of his campaign promises; others said they would vote for him again but with more trepidation.
Beverly Lucas, a 73-year-old Republican, described herself as living in an affluent white bubble in the Dallas suburb of Frisco. The America in One Room event jolted her from that comfort, she said. It reminded her of what it’s like to be surrounded by people different from her, and to grapple more deeply with her political views.
“I’ve led a sheltered life, and I want to change that,” she said. On the day we reached her, she had just put her home on the market. She plans to move to an apartment in a more diverse community in Cary, N.C., where she knows no one. And she has been thinking more about her political values, with all the forced time for reflection the pandemic has given her.
A lifelong Republican, she said she had often voted for what seemed best for her wallet. This year, she is voting out of her deep concern for abortion.
“I voted for Trump again,” Ms. Lucas said. “But I did it with eyes wide open and for my reasons, not for anybody else’s reasons.”
Independents and those who lean to either party
Among the America in One Room group, Mr. Biden’s advantage comes primarily from voters who describe themselves as either independents or “leaning” toward one party or the other. They back Mr. Biden by about 25 points, compared with just a seven-point lead for him among moderate and independent voters in the control group.
That’s a stunning difference. Few events — including the president’s impeachment and the pandemic — have moved public opinion anywhere near that much. Some hard-to-detect underlying characteristics may set these voters apart from typical moderates and independents (research suggests many of them aren’t actually that independent). Perhaps the voters at the Texas event, who agreed to fly across the country to talk politics with strangers, are more open to new experiences or new information.
But the researchers who organized the event say they think the experience itself helped shape voting intentions. And if that experience explains even a quarter of the overall result, that would be a significant effect.
Independent voters at the Texas event (a sample of them shown here), including those who said they lean to either party, support Joe Biden by roughly 53 percent to 28 percent.
Mike LaPointe, a 64-year-old independent in Clio, Mich., used to consider himself a solidly Republican voter, and he voted for Mr. Trump in 2016. He had followed current events mostly by watching Fox News. After the Texas event, he said, he made an effort to expand his information sources: to read Reuters, national newspapers and daily email newsletters. He is trying to avoid “tunnel vision,” he said.
Mr. LaPointe has been paying more attention to the news this year, reflecting the trend in the America in One Room survey data, and he has been particularly troubled by the pandemic and the president’s handling of it.
“That’s based on my personal observations and just watching him — it wasn’t twisted by the news,” said Mr. LaPointe, who is now edging toward Mr. Biden. “I watched and listened to a lot.”
His experience mirrors what the researchers believe has happened this year. James Fishkin and Larry Diamond, two of the political scientists who pioneered the concept of “deliberative polls,” say that voters become more informed, and even moderate their views, when they’re pulled into a room together and given neutral information to discuss.
Their model of deliberative democracy isn’t meant to lead to skewed support for one candidate, or one party. But in this highly unusual year, one issue has dominated the news — the pandemic — and scientific and health experts have largely found the president wanting on that issue.
“We may never see another case like this,” Mr. Fishkin said. “But for me, it’s proof of concept in that it shows a long-term deliberative effect is possible. And this is more than a year later.”
Voters at America in One Room never talked about the pandemic; the novel coronavirus wasn’t known to exist then. But they practiced some skills that could prove useful in thinking about a public health emergency that becomes politicized.
“What they learned in deliberation — at least for some of them – is you don’t just accept what your party says,” said Norman Bradburn, a senior fellow at NORC, which also collaborated on the project alongside the nonpartisan group Helena. “You think a little bit more about it. You ask questions. You deliberate, even if you only do it with yourself.”
George Baldwin, an independent who changed his Republican registration after the 2016 election, said he followed as the federal government failed to better coordinate protective equipment and coronavirus testing. He noticed when the president called growing concern over the pandemic a new hoax. He was paying attention when Mr. Trump called Dr. Anthony Fauci a “disaster.”
“If you had said to somebody in Dallas a year ago that a pandemic would be something that would divide the country as opposed to uniting us, it would have probably been met with a fair amount of disbelief,” said Mr. Baldwin, 62, who lives in West New York, N.J.
He has already cast his ballot for Mr. Biden.
Collectively, this group of Democrats reflects the party’s racial diversity. In interviews, they described many of the same fears as Republicans who have watched polarization in the country worsen.
Democratic voters at the Texas event (a sample of them shown here) support Joe Biden by roughly 98 percent to 1 percent.
Carole McGowan, a 74-year-old Democrat from Albuquerque, worries that Americans now seldom work together across different viewpoints, or prize a range of viewpoints at all.
“What scares me is that I don’t see that being a value anymore,” she said.
Other Democrats said their fears about the country’s divisions were inseparable from their vote choice. They blame the president for stoking division: between anti-mask and pro-mask neighbors, between racial and ethnic groups, between his base and everyone else.
“All of those things that have happened — the racial injustice protests, the riots, the pandemic, all of the other challenges — those are things that happened,” said Alan Hence, a 39-year-old Democrat in Slidell, La. But these events didn’t have to be so polarizing, he said. And with different leadership, he said, they might not have been.
It is remarkable to think that none of these issues were on the table in Texas a year ago. And perhaps it was easier to discuss the questions that were, like whether to lower the eligibility age for Medicare, or to increase the number of high-skilled immigrant visas.
But so many of these voters one year later said they were still clinging to the memory of sitting together, disagreeing but not disparaging one another.
“I’ve been really trying to hold onto that feeling, especially in the last year, and as the election ramps up,” said Andrew Holland, a 34-year-old Democrat in Martinez, Calif. “Because it doesn’t feel like that in our country.”