UCLA political scientists launch one of largest-ever public opinion surveys for run-up to 2020

As the nation heads into another contentious presidential campaign, what will drive people’s choices? What sacrifices are Americans willing to make to see their preferred politicians take office and their policy preferences take hold?

UCLA political science professors Lynn Vavreck and Chris Tausanovitch plan to tackle those questions through the 2020 election with an ambitious data-gathering and analysis project called Nationscape. The effort is a partnership with the Washington, D.C.-based Democracy Fund, and the surveys are being fielded by Lucid, a New Orleans-based market research firm.

Every week until the end of 2020, Nationscape will survey 6,250 Americans, asking them to choose between two groups of policy positions and political attributes, among hundreds of other questions.

What makes Nationscape unique is the way it asks respondents to make choices. The survey includes 41 different policy statements and eight hypothetical attributes of potential candidates, all of which are randomized to appear in two sets of issues that voters must choose between. For example, respondents could be asked to choose one of the following sets of statements:

Each bundle of policies and outcomes could contain views that respondents disagree with, mixed with ideas they favor, but Vavreck said posing the questions that way will give researchers a better sense of what really makes the electorate tick.

“We designed the project to learn what people’s priorities are when they are forced to choose among states of the world they want to live in,” she said. “This will help us sort out what is really important to people who, in traditional surveys, tell us they ‘strongly agree’ with all sorts of issues. That response doesn’t really tell us how people will vote if a choice has to be made, and voting is all about making a choice.”

Researchers will share insights and analysis from the surveys regularly throughout election season on Nationscape’s website. By November 2020, the team will have completed a half million interviews — including at least 1,000 interviews in every congressional district.

“Our measurement approach, coupled with the massive scope of the project, will allow us to track both attitude change and shifts in the impact or importance of issues and candidate traits over time and space,” Vavreck said.

Data gathering began in late July. Among the initial findings: Even when Democrats and Republicans agree that children shouldn’t be separated from their parents at the southern border, that there should be a pathway to citizenship for people brought to the U.S. as children, or that the size of the military should be preserved, Democrats are more likely than Republicans to concede on the other issues to preserve their preferred stances on immigration issues, while Republicans are more likely to make tradeoffs to preserve the military.

The results also hint at how people’s priorities change — or don’t — in relation to current events. For example, Vavreck said, few people changed their opinions about the need for universal background checks for gun purchases after the mass shootings in El Paso, Texas, and Dayton, Ohio.

“But the importance of that issue changed quite a bit,” she said. “It became significantly more important to people in choosing policy packages after the shootings, even though only about 1.8 percent of them changed their positions on the issue.”

Vavreck is the co-author of critically acclaimed books about the two most recent presidential elections, “The Gamble: Choice and Chance in the 2012 Presidential Election” and “Identity Crisis: The 2016 Presidential Campaign and the Battle for the Meaning of America.” She is UCLA’s Marvin Hoffenberg Professor of American Politics and Public Policy.

Tausanovitch, an expert on political representation, is the co-principal investigator — along with Chris Warsaw of George Washington University — of the American Ideology Project, which characterizes the conservativism and liberalism of states and voting districts through a 275,000-person survey.

Tausanovitch combed through studies, programs and policies to develop the lists of scenarios that respondents are confronting in the Nationscape surveys. He’s interested in the tradeoffs people are willing to make based on their political leanings and where they come from.

“Data is already demonstrating to us the way people’s attitudes and priorities change in response to events taking place in the country and showing us how Democrats and Republicans prioritize things differently, even when they agree on policies,” Tausanovitch said. “This helps to explain how Americans agree on many things, but also illustrates that their priorities are different.”

The overarching goal of Nationscape is to engender more informed and productive political deliberations, said Joe Goldman, president of the Democracy Fund.

“Nationscape goes beyond horse race polls and battleground states and gets to the real issues that are driving voters and their decisions,” he said. “The unparalleled size and scope of this survey will help us understand how opinions differ across small geographic areas and groups of voters in a way that isn’t possible with traditional surveys, providing a deeper understanding of the electorate in this vital election.”

By the end of the election cycle, Nationscape will have reached people in every state and congressional district, America through Lucid’s platform.

“We were very eager to partner with the UCLA team and help apply their expertise on a scale that reflects the complexity of contemporary American politics,” said Patrick Comer, Lucid’s founder and CEO.

This article originally appeared in the UCLA Newsroom.

What wolves’ teeth reveal about their lives

Biologist Blaire Van Valkenburgh has spent more than three decades studying the skulls of large carnivores. Here she displays a replica of a saber-toothed cat skull. At left are the skulls of a spotted hyena (in white) and a dire wolf (the black skull). Photo credit: Christelle Snow/UCLA.

UCLA evolutionary biologist Blaire Van Valkenburgh has spent more than three decades studying the skulls of many species of large carnivores — including wolves, lions and tigers —  that lived from 50,000 years ago to the present. She reports today in the journal eLife the answer to a puzzling question.

Essential to the survival of these carnivores is their teeth, which are used for securing their prey and chewing it, yet large numbers of these animals have broken teeth. Why is that, and what can we learn from it?

In the research, Van Valkenburgh reports a strong link between an increase in broken teeth and a decline in the amount of available food, as large carnivores work harder to catch dwindling numbers of prey, and eat more of it, down to the bones.

“Broken teeth cannot heal, so most of the time, carnivores are not going to chew on bones and risk breaking their teeth unless they have to,” said Van Valkenburgh, a UCLA distinguished professor of ecology and evolutionary biology, who holds the Donald R. Dickey Chair in Vertebrate Biology.

For the new research, Van Valkenburgh studied the skulls of gray wolves — 160 skulls of adult wolves housed in the Yellowstone Heritage and Research Center in Montana; 64 adult wolf skulls from Isle Royale National Park in Lake Superior that are housed at Michigan Technological University; and 94 skulls from Scandinavia, collected between 1998 and 2010, housed in the Swedish Royal Museum of Natural History in Stockholm. She compared these with the skulls of 223 wolves that died between 1874 and 1952, from Alaska, Texas, New Mexico, Idaho and Canada.

Yellowstone had no wolves, Van Valkenburgh said, between the 1920s and 1995, when 31 gray wolves were brought to the national park from British Columbia. About 100 wolves have lived in Yellowstone for more than a decade, she said.

In Yellowstone, more than 90% of the wolves’ prey are elk. The ratio of elk to wolves has declined sharply, from more than 600-to-1 when wolves were brought back to the national park to about 100-to-1 more recently.

In the first 10 years after the reintroduction, the wolves did not break their teeth much and did not eat the elk completely, Van Valkenburgh reports. In the following 10 years, as the number of elk declined, the wolves ate more of the elk’s body, and the number of broken teeth doubled, including the larger teeth wolves use when hunting and chewing.

The pattern was similar in the island park of Isle Royale. There, the wolves’ prey are primarily adult moose, but moose numbers are low and their large size makes them difficult to capture and kill. Isle Royale wolves had high frequencies of broken and heavily worn teeth, reflecting the fact that they consumed about 90% of the bodies of the moose they killed.

Scandinavian wolves presented a different story. The ratio of moose to wolves is nearly 500-to-1 in Scandinavia and only 55-to-1 in Isle Royale, and, consistent with Van Valkenburgh’s hypothesis, Scandinavian wolves consumed less of the moose they killed (about 70%) than Isle Royale wolves. Van Valkenburgh did not find many broken teeth among the Scandinavian wolves. “The wolves could find moose easily, not eat the bones, and move on,” she said.

Van Valkenburgh believes her findings apply beyond gray wolves, which are well-studied, to other large carnivores, such as lions, tigers and bears.

Extremely high rates of broken teeth have been recorded for large carnivores — such as lions, dire wolves and saber-toothed cats — from the Pleistocene epoch, dating back tens of thousands of years, compared with their modern counterparts, Van Valkenburgh said. Rates of broken teeth from animals at the La Brea Tar Pits were two to four times higher than in modern animals, she and colleagues reported in the journal Science in the 1990s.

“Our new study suggests that the cause of this tooth fracture may have been more intense competition for food in the past than in present large carnivore communities,” Van Valkenburgh said.

She and colleagues reported in 2015 that violent attacks by packs of some of the world’s largest carnivores — including lions much larger than those of today and saber-toothed cats — went a long way toward shaping ecosystems during the Pleistocene.

In a 2016 article in the journal BioScience, Van Valkenburgh and more than 40 other wildlife experts wrote that preventing the extinction of lions, tigers, wolves, bears, elephants and the world’s other largest mammals will require bold political action and financial commitments from nations worldwide.

Discussing the new study, she said, “We want to understand the factors that increase mortality in large carnivores that, in many cases, are near extinction. Getting good information on that is difficult. Studying tooth fracture is one way to do so, and can reveal changing levels of food stress in big carnivores.”

Co-authors are Rolf Peterson and John Vucetich, professors of forest resources and environmental science at Michigan Technological University; and Douglas Smith and Daniel Stahler, wildlife biologists with the National Park Service.

The research was funded by the National Science Foundation and National Park Service.

This article originally appeared in the UCLA Newsroom.

Disabled dancers learn to redefine the aesthetics of movement at UCLA

Photo of two women performing a dance duet.

Harmanie Taylor, left, and Vanessa Cruz perform a duet during the Dancing Disability Lab at UCLA. Photo: Reed Hutchinson/UCLA

As the 10 dancers moved across the studio floor in Kaufman Hall, their instructor closely watched how each dancer’s body movements transitioned from one to the next.

Victoria Marks, associate dean of the UCLA School of the Arts and Architecture and professor of choreography, offered encouragement and challenged the dancers to pay closer attention to the way they could shape space both individually and in pairs. Two dancers in wheelchairs faced each other, raising their arms in intricate patterns. Others incorporated crutches or a chair into their actions.

“You are a mover and a maker. You can make us see things,” Marks said to the group, her voice the only sound in the studio as the dancers worked without music. “You have that power, not just in what you’re doing but how you’re doing it.”

The dancers, hailing from around the world, came together for a week in June for UCLA’s Dancing Disability Lab, which was hosted by world arts and cultures/dance and the disability studies minor. They spent their time discussing disability activism and performance, developing their movement skills, creating choreography and exploring how dance can transform and challenge ideas about the body and personhood.

The UCLA Disability Inclusion Lab is a cross-disciplinary initiative designed to reframe cultural understanding and practices around the concept of disability through academic courses and community engagement. Each lab will build and strengthen networks of faculty, staff, undergraduate and graduate students, and community leaders to transform the discourse and awareness surrounding disability. The Dancing Disability Lab was UCLA’s second such project following the Autism Media Lab in the spring.

“I felt from the conception that UCLA was in a position to do something very different from what dance companies across the country are doing for dancers with disabilities,” Marks said. “Because we have a disability studies minor and a dance major, I thought UCLA could combine those resources, making dances and also talking about how what they create engages and changes ideas about disability.”

Each day included seminars on the history of disabled dance and performance, which included watching clips of dance and performance art made by disabled artists and discussions on topics such as access and the use of mobility aids in dance. In one discussion, the dancers and instructors debated whether mobility aids like wheelchairs and crutches could be considered “costumes” (while some supported the idea, others were staunchly opposed).

After the daily seminar, the dancers attended workshops on movement development and choreography. They practiced breathing techniques and explored how their experiences inform their dancing.

Mel Chua, a postdoc in biomedical engineering at Georgia Tech, said she was hesitant to apply for the program because she assumed that her previous dance training (through classes and a contemporary dance company as an undergraduate) wasn’t advanced enough. But Chua came to realize that she only felt unqualified precisely because, as a deaf person, she hasn’t ever had access to dance training like what she experienced at UCLA.

American Sign Language interpreters provided for her throughout the week enabled Chua to engage in spoken, scholarly discussions about dance for the first time, she said.

“I’ve mostly followed dance classes in the past through sight, just watching and copying, but I don’t know the language for dancing since I don’t know how people talk about dancing in English,” Chua said. “Having access to the rhetoric of dance, the way we talk about dance in English — the terminology — in discussion for the first time was amazing because I got to be part of dancers discussing dance, and that’s something I never get to do.”

Another first for Chua and many other dancers was getting to dance with a group of exclusively disabled dance artists. Instead of being the only disabled person in the class, feeling pigeonholed by their disability or having to translate choreography designed for non-disabled dancers, they were united in how they each expanded dancing conventions, Chua said.

Photo of a group of dancers performing on stage,

Instructor Alice Sheppard, left, performs a piece with the Dancing Disability Lab participants at the public showcase. Photo: Reed Hutchinson/UCLA

Vanessa Cruz, a dance major at Cal State Long Beach who has arthrogryposis (a condition in which the joints are fixed or their movement is restricted) and scoliosis, said she has only ever trained with non-disabled dancers and is accustomed to figuring out how to fit into an art form that caters to people without disabilities, which can be lonely.

Being in a dance workshop where everyone had a disability was empowering and eye-opening.

“It made me feel like I have a voice in this crazy world,” Cruz said. “It was the first time I felt like I belonged anywhere.”

Cruz and Chua both said they are not looking to inspire others or receive sympathy for the challenges they face. Although the idea of inclusion often focuses on bringing disabled and non-disabled people together, Chua believes it’s important for disabled people to have spaces that are just their own. Dancing Disability was exactly what she and her fellow participants needed to advance the field of dance and disability.

“It’s only when we figure out our own maturation of our own practice that we can come out from that place of having our own disabled practice and engage with yours,” Chua said. “There is something that abled people cannot give us, and they don’t need to understand or see what it is, but they need to trust that something is there and that it is important and they should support us having it, even if they never see it or perceive themselves as benefiting from it or learning from it.”

For Cruz, the lab gave disabled artists a chance to be heard and seen differently than what some might be accustomed to — a necessary step in ensuring that non-disabled people will be allies who provide ongoing support for equal access and inclusion.

“People need to know we exist. Dance is the perfect platform to allow our humanity to come through,” Cruz said. “People are either inspired by me or they feel sorry for me because that’s how the media has shaped our identity, but dance can change that.”

Dancing Disability was co-taught by Marks, Rosemarie Garland-Thomson, professor of English and bioethics at Emory University and co-director of the Emory College Disability Studies Initiative, and Alice Sheppard, a disabled dancer and choreographer. The week concluded with a public showcase at Kaufman Hall’s black box theater on June 28.

Marks said the lab showed her how much disabled dancers have to offer to an ever-changing exploration of what dance is and can be.

“There was a sense of full-bodied moving and a ton of imagination — the wit, intelligence and signature of each of the artists,” Marks said. “These artists have so much to offer all of us in terms of opening ourselves to what it means to be human and to be joyous and witty and funny and live life in all the complexities that life offers.”

She also recognized the need for disabled people to be leaders in discussions about inclusion and equal access, which is what the Dancing Disability Lab was designed to facilitate.

“UCLA has always been at the forefront of social justice movements and has recognized the need to address diversity, equity and inclusion, and so this lab is part of what UCLA continues to do,” Marks said. “It’s a tremendous contribution to the field of dance, and if dance represents people and our values and ideas, then it becomes part of that larger civic conversation about who we are.”

This article originally appeared in the UCLA Newsroom.