National News

Thanksgiving Got Shorter After the 2016 Election, Study Says. You Can Guess Why.

Posted May 31, 2018 4:51 p.m. EDT

Thanksgiving is supposed to be sacrosanct — a time to forget about diets and the stresses of the world and enjoy the company of friends and family. But it doesn’t always work out that way, does it?

Old squabbles and politics have a way of intruding. And a new study suggests that America’s growing partisanship may have led some to cut their Thanksgiving gatherings short in the weeks after the contentious 2016 election. (You remember the heated rhetoric, the ominous warnings and the angry rallies.)

The study, which will appear in the Friday issue of Science magazine, found that Thanksgiving celebrations that year were about 30 to 50 minutes shorter for Americans who crossed partisan lines for the holiday than those who traveled to areas that voted like their own.

“In this study, what we really care about is using the election of 2016 as a lens on how political polarization is damaging close family relationships,” said M. Keith Chen, an economics professor at the University of California, Los Angeles, and an author of the paper.

It aimed to shed new light on how partisanship can wear down the most basic human bonds, Chen said.

To investigate the link between politics and Thanksgiving dinner, he and his co-author, Ryne Rohla, a doctoral student at Washington State University, analyzed two huge sets of data: location information from more than 10 million smartphones and granular voting results from more than 172,000 precincts nationwide.

The smartphone data included 21 billion “pings” of devices in November 2016, each recording the location of a given smartphone at a specific time. It was provided by SafeGraph, a company that collects location data and other information from partners, including developers of mobile applications. The finely detailed voting data was laboriously compiled by Rohla, who got it from government websites and through election officials.

With all of that data in hand, the researchers made a pair of inferences about each smartphone user.

First, they estimated where each participant lived, based on the location of their devices between 1 a.m. and 4 a.m. during the three weeks preceding Thanksgiving. In doing so, they identified about 6 million “homes.”

Then the researchers guessed how each person voted by assigning them a probability score based on the election results for their home precinct. (The assumption they made was that the more heavily a precinct leaned toward a candidate, the more likely one of its residents supported that candidate.)

With an assumed home and a likely political affiliation, Chen and Rohla then reviewed how the participants traveled on Thanksgiving.

They took some precautions, though. For one, the researchers limited the analysis only to those who started and ended Thanksgiving Day at home because people who traveled farther most likely had little say over how long dinner would last.

To control for other factors, such as demographics, distance and travel time, they also compared dinner length between people who charted similar paths on Thanksgiving, traveling to and from the same general area.

The results were consistent: At the county, ZIP code and sub-ZIP code levels, people who traveled to an area with opposite political leanings to their own spent less time at Thanksgiving dinner than those who did not.

The effects were exacerbated for those who lived in politically saturated media markets: Every 1,000 political ads aired was associated with an additional 2.6 minutes off the length of Thanksgiving dinner.

“Areas that had a lot more ads run during the 2016 campaign saw maybe twice or three times as much time loss as those without much advertising,” Rohla said.

People traveling from hotly contested areas like Orlando, Florida, saw a reduction in the length of Thanksgiving dinner of as many as 69 minutes, the authors said. But, they noted, that may also be because such areas are also hotbeds for other political activity, such as rallies or fundraisers.

For Rohla and Chen, the study was prompted by more than mere intellectual curiosity. It was personal. Both said they were from mixed-politics families strained by the contentiousness of the 2016 campaign.

“I experienced the last election as a real gut-punch, and I think a lot of people did,” Chen said. “And then Thanksgiving follows closely on the heels of it.”