Eight months after Donald Trump’s Electoral College victory, arguments still rage over what motivated Trump’s nearly 63 million voters. Was it racism and sexism, or was it the consequence of economic anxiety in disaffected white working-class communities? How had Trump succeeded, particularly in long-Democratic states in the Rust Belt, where Romney and McCain had failed?
The question has become a sort of Rorschach test for the left: Many social democrats and Sanders supporters see Trump’s apostasy on trade and his promises to bring factory jobs back as key to his victory, while Clinton-aligned and more identity-focused analysts tend to hone in on Trump’s overt appeals to prejudice.
The evidence collected since the election increasingly suggests that both sides are right—it just depends on which Trump voter you’re looking at. For the base Trump voter, it appears that racism, xenophobia, and misogyny played a larger role. But for the smaller group of Obama-Trump switchers, economic anxiety seems to have made the difference.
There were other factors, of course, among them James Comey, the hacking of Clinton’s campaign emails, and voter-suppression efforts in key battleground states. Moreover, economic pressures and prejudice aren’t easily disaggregated; studies show that hardship increases intolerance. But the key question about the relative roles of prejudice and economic frustration still demands an answer.
It’s clear that prejudice did play an outsize role in helping Trump to victory. A raft of quantitative data across multiple studies all indicate that racism is strongly correlated to support for Trump. The 2016 National Election Study showed that racially discriminatory attitudes more closely corresponded to Trump votes than any other factor. The sum total of the evidence clearly indicates that Republican voters as a whole are motivated by “cultural anxiety,” a loose euphemism for racial, gendered, and religious prejudice. Much of this backlash is driven by white voters who are fearful of being displaced by immigrants, and who say that they now feel like “strangers in their own country.”
This isn’t news, however. The entire history of the Republican Party since 1965 tells this story far better than loosely correlated plotted graphs of cultural attitudes. From the Southern Strategy to Willie Horton to Romney’s “47 percent,” racism has been at the heart of the conservative appeal since at least the civil rights movement, with sexism and religious discrimination thrown in for good measure. What is new is how openly 2016’s Republican candidate wore his prejudice on his sleeve, stoking nearly every ugly prejudice in the many Americans’ psyches.
But Trump also had to win over a fraction of Obama voters. As it turns out, the Obama-Trump switchers and Democratic drop-off voters who made the real difference in the election were strongly motivated by economic concerns.
Polling and focus groups conducted last month by the pro-Clinton SuperPAC Priorities USA showed that Obama-Trump voters worried greatly about dropping standards of living, and felt that Democrats had become a party of the rich, disconnected from the needs of white working-class Americans. The drop-off voters who had voted for Obama in 2012 but failed to vote in 2016 were also deeply economically anxious, and while they have a strong distaste for Republicans and Trump, they often felt that Democrats would do little to improve their own situations.
The Priorities USA study reflects the findings from other data. As pollster Stan Greenberg noted in this summer’s Prospect, Democratic support has declined not just with working-class whites, but also with the entire working-class coalition that once made up a crucial element of the Obama electorate. This disenchantment with Democratic economics is found in minority and millennial voters, for whom the economic “progress” much touted by both Obama and Clinton is more illusion than reality.
The same 2016 National Election Study that showed high correlations of cultural anxiety with support for Trump also showed that Trump voters skewed lower in income than the supporters of previous GOP nominees. Correspondingly, the 2016 exit polls also revealed a cratering in lower-income voters’ support for Democrats: Those making under $50,000 per year shifted from Obama to Trump by 21 points, even as those making over $100,000 per year shifted from Romney to Clinton by 9 points.
It’s also important to note that most studies minimizing the effect of economic anxiety tend to use raw income as their objective correlative for anxiety. But this is a fundamental error: Downward mobility, high rates of opioid addiction, prevalence of subprime loans, lack of good jobs for younger generations, and the susceptibility of jobs to automation and outsourcing can all generate anxiety. Even where incomes are nominally in the middle class, those communities in most rapid economic decline were likeliest to be for Trump.
Yes, the unpersuadable base conservative voters tended to be as strongly prejudiced as they had been for decades, but economic concerns played a crucial role in shifting just enough white voters to Trump, and keeping just enough younger and minority voters from the polls.
Before the election, the Clinton campaign’s strategy was encapsulated in a quote from Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer: “For every blue-collar Democrat we lose in western Pennsylvania, we will pick up two moderate Republicans in the suburbs in Philadelphia, and you can repeat that in Ohio and Illinois and Wisconsin.” While a number of suburban voters were indeed driven by Trump’s behavior from Romney 2012 to Clinton 2016, there weren’t enough David Brooks-reading Republicans in swing states to compensate for the white working-class voters Democrats lost. (This hasn’t stopped Clinton-campaign veteran operatives from continuing to chase them like a man dying of thirst seeking a fleeting mirage.) Most of the well-to-do suburban Republicans courted by the Clinton campaign, however, were either too prejudiced or jealous of their tax dollars to switch sides. That doesn’t mean that the economically ravaged, disproportionately rural white working class switched from Obama to Trump for the same reasons.
These Obama-Trump switchers had watched their way of life decay and disappear for decades. President Obama promised hope and change that failed to materialize in their communities. Where Clinton offered retraining programs and the insistence that Americans were all “stronger together,” Trump promised to bring the factories back and to drain the swamp of the wealthy political and economic elites who had impoverished them. Anti-immigrant sentiment also was clearly a factor, too—but when once ubiquitous low-skill jobs disappear, the misdirected backlash against the immigrants who are seen as taking the few that remain at lower wages cannot be attributed simply and solely to prejudice.
For Democrats to regain their footing, it will not be necessary, much less morally acceptable, to reduce commitments to social equality and inclusivity, to immigrant and minority rights. The portion of the mostly suburban electorate that voted for Trump out of a desire to maintain white male hegemony will remain largely unreachable. But many of the economically anxious voters Democrats lost across the spectrum in 2016, especially but not limited to the white working class, can be won back with more forceful appeals to core economic concerns.
Click here to read the rest of our series on the White Working Class and the Democrats.