tip

How Do We Know We Are at a Tipping Point?

In times of tumult, it's hard to understand if we are at a tipping point — a place from where there's no return to the former ways — or just a short-lived change in behavior. Policy changes often come long after the events that precipitated them. And, of course, changing hearts and minds is a long and complicated process. 

At this moment, it feels as if George Floyd is that inflection point. Not only has his death under the knee of a white police officer sparked protests around the country and the world, but polling suggests it has also changed the way white Americans see the issue of systemic bias in policing and in society. Back in 2014, when Ferguson, Missouri erupted in violence over the killing of an unarmed black teenager by a white officer, just 33 percent of Americans agreed that police officers are more likely to use excessive force on African-Americans, according to polling by Monmouth University. In 2016, with the rise of Black Lives Matter and more attention to cases of unarmed African-Americans being killed by police officers, a majority of Americans (52 percent), still did not agree that the police are more likely to use excessive force in dealing with black suspects than white ones.  

This week, however, the Monmouth poll found that 57 percent of Americans agreeing that police officers are more likely to use excessive force on blacks. The big reason for that jump in support — not surprisingly — is that more whites believe this to be true. In 2016, just a quarter of white Americans thought the police were more likely to use deadly force on blacks. That number almost doubled (49 percent) in the June 2020 poll. A CBS poll out this week showed similar results:  

"A majority — 57% — now think the police are more likely to use deadly force against a black person than a white person, up from 43% in 2016. Here, too, much of this change comes from a shift in opinion among whites. More than half of whites (52%) now see racial discrimination against blacks in how police use force, compared to just a third (36%) four years ago." 

Both surveys also found familiar fault lines among white voters. In the Monmouth survey, two-thirds of white voters with a college degree agree that the police are more likely to use excessive force on blacks, compared to just 43 percent of white voters without a college degree. In the CBS survey, while half (50%) of whites think white people have a better chance of getting ahead, a 15 point jump from five years ago, "most white college graduates believe whites have a better chance of getting ahead than blacks, while a slim majority of those without a college degree think blacks and whites have an equal chance to get ahead.

One of the best ways to distinguish the fleeting from the enduring is to be able to track opinion over time. And, no one does this better than Pew Research. This week, Pew released its latest survey of party affiliation and identification, a 25-year project that has included 360,000 registered voters, including more than 12,000 in 2018 and 2019.  

These surveys do not track how voters are registered —or for which party they voted in a recent election. Instead, they ask respondents to identify themselves as either Democrat, Republican, or independent.  

In looking through 25 years of data, you can see those inflection points where a demographic group's partisan identity shifted. And, that point is often counter to conventional wisdom.  

For example, for much of the 1990s and even into the early 2000s, white Catholics identified themselves as slightly more Democratic than Republican. In 2002 and 2004, that edge disappeared but rebounded in 2006 and 2008. In other words, those Bush years may not have been the actual tipping point, but more a reflection of a moment (9/11 especially). By 2010, white Catholics' party identification had shifted considerably Republican and has stayed Republican ever since. That GOP advantage has only grown since 2010. 

Meanwhile, white non-college voters, while always GOP leaning, were less so during the mid-late 1990s (the Clinton-era) and in the mid-2000s (the midterm rout of 2006 and the election of Barack Obama in 2008). But, like white Catholics, these voters moved decidedly more Republican during the Obama Administration. Since 2010, that identification has increased every year, from R+14 to R+24.  

While many see the election of Donald Trump as the tipping point for white, college-educated voters from Republican to Democrat, these Pew surveys suggest that it really started during the George W. Bush-era. If you look at white voters with a college degree or postgraduate degree (in pollster shorthand, college plus), you see that what was once a double-digit GOP identification turns into single digits in 2004 and never comes back. By 2012, that GOP ID is down to just R+2. In 2014, white college plus graduates identified equally with the Democratic and Republican parties. By 2016, these voters identify with Democrats by four points.  



What you can also see, however, is the impact that the postgraduate cohort has on the overall lean of the combined white college and postgraduate community. White postgrads had never been all that strongly identified with Republicans and now identify with Democrats by 24 points. However, the more dramatic movement is among white four-year degree holders who, 25 years ago, overwhelmingly affiliated themselves with the GOP and who now lean Democrat by three points. Their inflection point came a bit later than the postgrads — more like 2012 than 2004.  

Bottom line: 2016 was not a tipping point; it was a galvanizing one. The real tipping points came at the tail-end of the Bush-era or during the Obama-era. In other words, the election of Donald Trump didn't shift partisanship, but it did deepen it.