I Was Wrong about Trump Voters

After the November election, one prevailing narrative suggested that the primary reason people voted for Donald Trump had to do with poor economic prospects that stemmed from trade and globalization. The idea was that a rapidly changing global economy was leaving their communities destitute and that the faraway elites did not seem to care about them. This view has been at the core of an argument by some on the political left who suggest that Democrats lost this constituency by failing to sufficiently address such economic anxieties, and that the party could win them back if only it paid more attention to those issues. I have largely shared this belief since the election.

I’m now willing to admit I was wrong.

Two recent surveys — one from the Atlantic/PRRI and one from the Washington Post/KFF — offer the clearest evidence yet that the state of the economy really wasn’t the main story. Instead, the predominant motivating factors for these voters’ support of Trump had much more to do with cultural issues, such as race and identity. (Before I go any further, I would caution some of those who have believed this to be the case all along, as I think this explanation is more nuanced than simply “all Trump voters are racist.”)

The Atlantic survey, which observed working-class whites, found that “besides partisan affiliation, it was cultural anxiety — feeling like a stranger in America, supporting the deportation of immigrants, and hesitating about educational investment — that best predicted support for Trump.” A full 68% of these voters said that the American way of life “needed to be protected from foreign influence.” They also believed at a rate of more than 60% that American culture has gotten worse since the 1950s, that the U.S. is in danger of losing its identity, and that the growing number of immigrants is a threat to the country’s culture. Interestingly, the study found that “people who said their finances are only in fair or poor shape were nearly twice as likely to support Clinton compared to those who feel more economically secure.”

The Washington Post study took on another major factor in the election: the urban/rural divide. The survey similarly noted that this split — specifically, rural America’s support for Trump — is “tied more to social identity than to economic experience.” While a rough post-recession recovery was probably a consideration for some of these voters, the study points out that economic indicators are about the same in rural parts of the country as they are in urban centers. In fact, while Trump won rural voters who worried about their community’s job prospects by 14 points more than Clinton, he carried rural voters who felt their job prospects were fairly good by a whopping 30 points.

Perhaps the most telling finding from this study was that “the largest fissures between Americans living in large cities and those in less-dense areas are rooted in misgivings about the country’s changing demographics and resentment about perceived biases in federal assistance,” with rural Americans more often believing that federal assistance to people in urban areas goes to “irresponsible people who do not deserve it.” When pressed, many of these voters believe such “undeserved” benefits are likelier to go to racial minorities. Rural whites were also 14 points more likely than their urban white counterparts to believe that whites “losing out” because of preferences for blacks and Hispanics was a bigger problem than the reverse.

This new data supports post-election exit polls (which I failed to heed right after the election) showing that Clinton carried a majority of voters for whom the economy was the biggest concern, whereas Trump won those who said their biggest issues were terrorism and immigration (issues often dealing with elements of race).

This may also help explain why it’s often difficult to convince Trump voters that he hasn’t had their economic interests in mind when developing his economic policy agenda. Rather than just seeing Trump as the person who is going to bring back the jobs that “have left” (which really just translates to “have been lost due to automation or competitive new industries”), he’s the guy who made them feel like someone was looking out for them. He’s the one who came to Washington to be their mouthpiece against the “elites” and “political correctness” that have, in their minds, catered too much to non-whites and increasingly threatened their way of life.

One of the key questions now confronting those on the political left is, given this information, what can future relations look like between liberals and Trump voters? (I should note that I’m referring to voters who are sincere in their beliefs and support of Trump, not alt-right trolls who have no intention of engaging in good-faith dialogue.) For starters, this new insight should not lead us to believe that the solution is to stop talking to each other. Those of us who did not vote for Trump still share our democracy with the nearly 60 million people who cast a ballot for him. At a time when our political life is growing increasingly polarized and acrimonious, we can ill afford to cut off contact with those with whom we disagree, or whom we may even believe possess offensive viewpoints (lest we end up like North Carolina).

While racial resentment may have played a role in many of these voters’ support of Trump, it would be counterproductive to simply label all of them as racists. Doing so is an intellectually lazy excuse for not having to engage with them. Moreover, part of what might have fed this resentment toward cultural diversity is a tendency in parts of the left to ridicule these voters as “backwards,” “uneducated,” or “privileged,” among a host of other epithets. Regardless of whether one thinks those descriptors are apt to some degree (such as “privileged”), using those kinds of terms is perhaps the least likely way to convince someone to change — or at the very least open — their mind.

However, this new information should be taken into account as Democrats try to figure out the best strategy for their party moving forward. A fuller discussion of this topic might be best saved for another time, but suffice it to say that making winning back Trump voters the focus of a future Democratic presidential campaign — as Bernie Sanders and many of his supporters believe is necessary — may not be the most prudent move knowing what we now know (though a stronger economic message certainly wouldn’t be a bad thing).

To sum it up: the political left shouldn’t fold its arms and refuse to engage with Trump voters, but the insights offered by these studies make it clear that Democrats can’t rely on them for a path back to power, either.



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Michael Baharaeen

Political analyst focused on electoral politics, Congress, demographic trends, polling, public policy, and political history.