Wheaton students favor former Vice President Joe Biden over President Donald Trump by eight percentage points, according to a poll conducted by the Record. 48 percent of respondents indicated they would vote for Biden, 40 percent for Trump and 12 percent for an independent or write-in candidate.
Between Oct. 27 and Nov. 1, the Record surveyed 764 Wheaton undergraduates about the 2020 presidential election. The poll was conducted by Qualtrics and distributed to the student body through an email from the Student Activities Office and on the Record’s Instagram page. The poll included nine questions about political engagement and voting preference and asked students to rank the importance of top political issues. The Record also invited respondents to share why they were voting for their preferred candidate in their own words.
Across the country, 71.7 percent of those who voted in the 2016 election have already voted early this year. At the time of publishing, 97.6 million ballots have been cast, 62.2 million of which have been by mail-in ballots.
According to the Record poll, Wheaton has mirrored this national trend, with roughly 89 percent of students saying they voted either by mail or early in-person, compared to only 11 percent who say they will vote at the polls on Election Day. The number of Wheaton students voting by mail is higher than the national average in part because 73 percent of Wheaton students legally reside out-of-state.
Political science professor Amy Black attributed the shift in voting patterns in part to the COVID-19 pandemic, noting concerns about standing in line on Election Day and the health of poll workers.
“Democratic voters are clearly more energized to get out early,” Black said. “That also affects the national narrative because in general Democratic voters seem to be more concerned about the pandemic, more willing to wear masks. Republican voters are less concerned about the pandemic.”
The Record’s polling data supported Black’s interpretation. Among respondents who listed COVID-19 as one of three issues most important to their vote, 60 percent supported Biden, 31 percent indicated support for Trump and 9 percent an independent or write-in candidate.
“Everything’s taking a backseat to COVID,” said Vice President of the Wheaton College Republicans Connor Woodin, a sophomore political science major. “It’s sad for me, because it’s more fun to see a more diverse range of things being talked about.”
Nationally, the debate around the Trump administration’s handling of the COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted polarization between the two major parties.
“Obviously, the current administration has not been handling [COVID-19] and did not handle it in time,” said President of Wheaton College Democrats major Sarah Penn, sophomore political science and Spanish. “Regulations need to be made, and one candidate is promising that because he is listening to scientists. The other candidate is appealing to a group of supporters that wants to deny the whole thing and believe that it’s a hoax.”
When asked to rank top political issues, more than half of students cited either racial justice or abortion as most important to them in the 2020 presidential election. When asked to explain their reasons for supporting a specific candidate, many students indicated that issues are more important than a candidate’s personal character.
“I support Joe Biden only because he gives the greatest platform for social change in the future — not now, but later,” one respondent wrote. “I’m voting for a system that I know is bad and flawed, but it will keep my people marginally safer than the current administration. I’m not tricked into thinking that Biden actually cares for LGBTQ and minority communities. I understand the flaws of his administration, but to get to the next change toward socialism and racial justice, we need to swing farther left than we are now.”
“Although I don’t like President Trump as a person, I still believe abortion is the biggest political issue of our time,” a Trump voter said. “It has a direct and catastrophic effect upon human lives.”
Both Republican and Democrat students cited faith as a factor in their voting decision. Among respondents who referenced faith as a reason for supporting their preferred candidate, 49.5 percent expressed support for Trump, 44 percent for Biden and 6.5 percent for independents or write-in candidates.
The election has also highlighted the divisions within the major political parties. Black said the Republican party is undergoing an identity crisis which Trump has intensified.
“He’s fundamentally transformed what the Republican Party stands for and even what that label means,” Black said. “It’s so hard to talk about American politics in the age of President Trump because he is so different from the traditional politician — that’s where I feel almost stumped.”
“There’s a slight division among some Republicans,” Woodin said, “not about what we stand for, but just in relation to Trump, because he is a very polarizing character.”
Penn said the stakes for Tuesday’s election are high. “The school is taking a stance of, ‘whatever happens, don’t let this crush your world,’ but I know LGBT students on campus, black students on campus, students who have friends that are DACA recipients, and this election to them means a lot more because it’s directly going to affect their rights as a person.”
Penn’s concerns about a Trump presidency are shared by many Wheaton students, according to Record polling numbers. 60 percent of students said they would be disappointed or angry if Trump were reelected on Nov. 3, compared to just 30 percent who said they would be relieved and 10 percent who said they would be excited.
Students expressed less intense reactions to the prospect of a Biden presidency, with 11 percent saying they would be angry or excited. Just under half of respondents said they would be relieved at a Biden presidency.
Woodin said students need to keep the importance of electoral politics in perspective. “I know a couple students who say, ‘This is life or death, guys, this is our big moment.’ But I don’t think the stakes are incredibly high. This could potentially be a turning-point election, but I think some of the students are taking it way too seriously and need to remember it’s just politics — there are more important things.”
Black recalled how students felt “stunned” and “didn’t know how to respond” after Trump won the 2016 election. In recent days, she has spoken with RAs on ways to promote civil discussions among students and said she feels hopeful that students are “able to talk across their political differences reasonably well.”
Civility has been a prominent theme in communications from the Wheaton administration in the runup to the election. The Chaplain’s Office sent a prayer guide on Oct. 16 and Nov. 2, urging the student body to pray for unity and grace. Student leadership groups sponsored “Lean-In Conversations” featuring a different faculty speaker each week since Oct. 1. These events highlighted charity and kindness as a way to foster productive dialogue, but Penn noted that many students are still scared to share their political opinions due to heated conversations on campus.
“I did notice, after the first debate, there was a different environment on campus,” Penn said. “Just sitting in Stupe, I constantly had knots of anxiety because every conversation I could overhear was about the election.”
Black urged the student body to maintain civility regardless of the election outcomes, which could be delayed due to tabulating differences in each state or a legal battle in the Supreme Court.
“Whatever choice you make, we need to remember that we need to love one another as brothers and sisters,” she said. “Our identity is not in how we vote.”
It remains to be seen what percent of the vote will be counted by midnight on Tuesday evening, potentially pushing the final outcome to Wednesday or later. Watch this space for continued coverage on Election Day and in the following weeks.
Wheaton College, IL