The bitterly contested US presidential election is just 11 days away, although many Americans are already casting ballots by mail and at select polling places. National polls give Democratic challenger Joe Biden a moderate lead. But scientists seem to overwhelmingly want the former vice-president as the next US leader, according to a Nature survey of nearly 900 readers. They identified climate change and the US response to the COVID-19 pandemic as the main issues that have influenced who they support in this election.
Many respondents to the survey — which is not representative of working scientists or the United States as a whole — also expressed fear over US President Donald Trump being re-elected, and distress over the potentially lasting damage to scientific integrity that he has wrought. Responses to the poll were solicited on Nature’s website, through the Nature Briefing e-mail newsletter and on social media. Respondents hailed from both the United States and abroad, and were asked to provide both their eligibility and intention to vote.
The 2020 election has been seriously fraught; hotly debated issues that have been at the forefront of the divide include racial inequalities, reproductive rights and climate change. Trump’s first term has been so disruptive to the scientific enterprise that it has prompted several high-profile scientific publications, including Nature, to endorse Biden.
Biden leads Trump by about ten percentage points, according to the poll-analysis site FiveThirtyEight, which considers national and state-level polls. But the divide among Biden and Trump supporters in Nature’s readership is substantially larger: of 892 respondents in total, 86% supported the Democratic candidate, 8% favour Trump and 6% responded ‘Other’ — written responses in this category indicated support for Vermont senator Bernie Sanders and libertarian candidate Jo Jorgenson. Roughly the same percentage of respondents who are intending to vote — out of 579 in total — backed Biden.
It is surprising to see just how large the margin of Biden’s support is among Nature’s survey respondents, says Cindy Kam, a political scientist at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee. But she notes that because of the way Nature's survey was conducted and because its audience is mainly composed of scientists, there's no reason to expect the results would be representative of the broader US public.
The survey also asked respondents to indicate their field as belonging to one of four broad disciplines: social, biological, physical or computer sciences. Social scientists showed the highest margin of support for Biden, at more than 90%, whereas 83% of physical and computer scientists supported the former vice-president. This trend mirrors survey results from the Higher Education Research Institute at the University of California, Los Angeles, which have shown sociologists to have more left-leaning views than their counterparts in the physical sciences.
The COVID-19 pandemic has ensured that, unlike in most previous elections, scientific issues have taken centre stage. Nearly one-third of respondents who support Biden selected climate change from the set of offered options as their most pressing issue, 26% selected the US pandemic response and 18% chose social justice. Many of these voters commented that the three issues were closely intertwined. “The last four years have felt like a continuous assault on women, people of colour, science, decency and ethics. Without change in the White House, these can't be addressed,” one Biden supporter wrote. Write-in answers, which were provided by 11% of Biden supporters, included character and leadership abilities and health-care reform.
By contrast, about 43% of Trump-supporting respondents cited the economy as the biggest issue of the election, followed by about 16% who picked immigration. Seventeen per cent of Trump supporters wrote in their own answers, which included issues such as foreign policy and the Supreme Court. “Although I support Trump for economic reasons, I would like him to do a better job embracing science, supporting the scientific community and not contradicting expert scientific advice,” one respondent wrote.
That Biden and Trump supporters have such different priorities isn’t a surprise, Kam says. These trends are roughly in line with what supporters of the two candidates tend to focus on, she adds. The data also show that respondents outside the United States have different priorities than do those in the country — they are much less likely to rank pandemic response as a key issue, for example.
When properly contextualized, such surveys can provide a useful lens to think about election attitudes, Kam says. “Even if they’re not representative, they can be informative.”