Has Denison Shifted to the Political Left?

By Maggie Miller

During the Trump era, have students shifted away from the Republican Party? Conservative commentators regularly claim that liberal professors indoctrinate their students, motivating more liberal views (despite a wide variety of evidence). Is this the case at Denison? Are we a more liberal-leaning student body, a more conservative one or somewhere in the middle? To begin to answer these questions, we can look back at survey data from Denison students in October of 2015 and compare it to data from Denison students in March of 2019.

Specifically, we can examine how the partisanship of Denison students has changed over four years. I’ll look at whether the student body has changed as well as whether 2015 first-year students were different by the time they were 2019 seniors. The question asked to the student body in 2015 was, “With which of the following political labels do you most closely identify?” In 2019, the question has the same response options and is similarly worded, “Generally, which of these party labels best describes you?”

Shown in the figure below, there is not much change in the student body. The proportion of Republicans has essentially not changed on campus (20.7 in 2015 and 19.9 in 2019). Rather, it seems that the biggest difference is an increase in partisanship. Independents decreased between 2015 and 2019, and there’s an increase in the percentage of Democratic categories. In 2015, 21.8% of students that completed the October survey identified themselves as Independents, whereas only 15.2% of Denison students identified as such in 2019. Although that is only a 6.6% difference, it shows that Denison is slowly becoming more partisan. More students are identifying as Independent-Republican and Independent-Democratic rather than just Independents.

So why did this occur? One potential interpretation could be that Denison reflects the nation, which has become even more polarized in the past four years. Another potential interpretation, if you define Independents as those who tend to know less about politics, is that after four years at Denison they become more knowledgeable and more connected and we should expect that the percentage of Independents decreases as a result. Moreover, what we see here has been going on at Denison steadily for a longer period of time (since at least 2010).

To further test the theory regarding Denison’s role, a comparison of 2015 FYS to 2019 seniors – the same cohort – could show whether one group moving through Denison has changed. Shown below, there are some pronounced changes. Similar to the results for the student body above, there is a marked decrease in Independents, dropping 9.7% from 2015 to 2019. Clearly, the other noticeable change by this cohort is the decline of Republican-leaning students, which went from 21.7% in 2015 to only 14.2% in 2019. That means the collection of Democratic identifications shot up from 56 to 73 percent over the four years. One interesting thing to note, therefore, is that Admissions must have been (potentially? unconsciously?) recruiting more conservative students so that the student body concentration of Republicans (seen above) remains stable in this time period.

Are there any ramifications of this? Denison’s student body has become less diverse in one important way and therefore it is harder to practice talking across lines of difference that are critical to a healthy democracy. One question to ask is whether the increase in partisanship is affecting the relationship between students as well as the ability for students to get stuff done. Does a more partisan student body make it harder to work together? It is still an open question of what could be responsible for the shift in the 2015-2019 cohort. At least two possibilities stand out: Trump has been incredibly unpopular on campus, which drove many to realign their partisan identity, and there are some forces, especially peers, on campus promoting a move to the left. There is more work to be done. Maybe what these results really show is that after four-years as Denisonians, we really do become discerning moral agents and autonomous thinkers.

Maggie Miller is a second semester senior with mixed feelings about graduation who studies political science and philosophy. She has worked in the First-Year Office and for the Denison Athletic Department. She is excited to spend her last semester studying all things Denison.

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