If your first Thanksgiving dinner after the 2016 election felt oddly brief, you may not be alone. A study published Friday found that Thanksgiving dinners after the Trump's election were shorter for Americans who spent the night in hostile political territory — that is, at households with opposite voting patterns than their own. The findings suggest that increased political tensions during the election year, rather than leading to protracted Thanksgiving arguments, simply compelled people to spend less time with families that held opposing political views to their own.
The study's authors arrived at their conclusion by analyzing anonymized smartphone location data from 10 million phones in the weeks leading up to Thanksgiving 2016 and comparing it to precinct-level voting results. Researchers estimated where each subject lived based on where their phones were between 1 a.m. and 4 a.m. in the three weeks before Thanksgiving, then assigned a probable political party to that person based on the voting patterns of the area they lived in. Then, on Thanksgiving, the researchers tracked where each person went — and how long they spent there.
Although the study relied on many assumptions, its conclusions were clear: On the county, ZIP code and sub-ZIP code levels, Americans who traveled to places with opposite partisan voting patterns from their own on Thanksgiving spent around 60 fewer minutes at the dinner table than those who didn't. This effect was not observed in 2015, the researchers noted before the final version of the study was released, suggesting that the contentious election year played a role in the "time loss."
"34 million hours of cross-partisan Thanksgiving dinner discourse were lost in 2016 owing to partisan effects," the study's authors wrote.
This effect was especially pronounced for people who lived in areas that had a high volume of political ads during the election. People who traveled from Orland, Florida, for example, spent as much as 69 fewer minutes at dinner, the researchers found.
“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,” said Ryne Rohla, a doctoral student at Washington State University and one of the study's co-authors. M. Keith Chen, an economics professor at the University of California Los Angeles and the study's other co-author, told NBC News that “for every 1,000 ads that played in your area, problematic Thanksgiving-day dinners shorted by almost three minutes. It really magnified things."
The study also noted some asymmetries between the behavior of Democrats and Republicans on Thanksgiving. Democrats were less likely than Republicans to spend Thanksgiving at homes with opposing views to their own; however, the Democrats who did go to ideologically-opposite households on Thanksgiving spent more time their than did Republicans. On average, Republicans at Democratic households shortened their visits by between 50 and 70 minutes, while Democrats who sent to Republican homes cut their dinners short by only 20 to 40 minutes.
“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,” Chen said.
The study only counted Americans who began and ended Thanksgiving day at home, the reasoning being that people who traveled long distances for the holiday probably had less control over how much time they spent at dinner. Moreover, because it was based on smartphone data, it didn't look at the Thanksgiving behavior of the 23 percent of Americans who don't own smartphones.
Rohla and Chen's findings are consistent with a Pew poll taken in the December after the election. In that survey, 59 percent of people from politically-divided families said that their families generally avoid talking about politics with one another. By contrast, 70 percent of people from politically-aligned families said that they were OK discussing the subject with their relatives.