What motivated Trump voters?

The analyses of why Donald Trump won and what types of people voted for him keep going on apace. Mehdi Hasan says that some evidence points to racism playing a more important role than economic frustration, the latter view being advocated by people like Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren who think that Democrats should try to regain the votes of those who went for Trump.

IT ISN’T ONLY Republicans, it seems, who traffic in alternative facts. Since Donald Trump’s shock election victory, leading Democrats have worked hard to convince themselves, and the rest of us, that his triumph had less to do with racism and much more to do with economic anxiety — despite almost all of the available evidence suggesting otherwise.

Both Sanders and Warren seem much keener to lay the blame at the door of the dysfunctional Democratic Party and an ailing economy than at the feet of racist Republican voters.

The reluctance to acknowledge that bigotry, and tolerance of bigotry, is still so widespread in society is understandable. From an electoral perspective too, why would senior members of the Democratic leadership want to alienate millions of voters by dismissing them as racist bigots?

Philip Klinkner, a political scientist at Hamilton College and an expert on race relations, has pored over this ANES data and tells me that “whether it’s good politics to say so or not, the evidence from the 2016 election is very clear that attitudes about blacks, immigrants, and Muslims were a key component of Trump’s appeal.” For example, he says, “in 2016 Trump did worse than Mitt Romney among voters with low and moderate levels of racial resentment, but much better among those with high levels of resentment.”

To be clear, no one is saying there weren’t any legitimate economic grievances in Trumpland, nor is anyone claiming that the economy played no role whatsoever. The point, however, is that it wasn’t the major motivating factor for most Trump voters — or, at least, that’s what we learn when we bother to study those voters. Race trumped economics.

If we concede Hasan’s point that racism was a major factor, does that mean that Sanders’ and Warren’s strategy of trying to appeal to those voters is not valid? I don’t think so. The basic message should not change to accommodate the racism. We should aim to persuade them that their economic interests should take precedence over their racist inclinations.


  1. deepak shetty says

    We should aim to persuade them that their economic interests should take precedence over their racist inclinations.

    But this should already be the case right (because a significant number did vote for Obama).
    The people also bought Trumps economics argument that for e.g. cutting regulations would get back their jobs. Or that they are losing their jobs due to other countries . Or that because he’s a successful (?) businessman he would be better for the economy.

  2. Jean says

    But for a lot of them, their economic insecurities are driven by their racism. The “others” are stealing their jobs and/or leaching off the government (and therefore their own money). So that complicates the message if you want to ignore the racism.

  3. says

    The beginning of the article really, really pisses me off:

    IT ISN’T ONLY Republicans, it seems, who traffic in alternative facts.

    Geez, they’re starting out (and thereby emphasizing) the utterly ridiculous “false balance” technique.

    First, just because some “liberals” have emphasized economic anxiety doesn’t mean they are dealing in “alternative facts”. In fact, as the article says, that’s still part of it. There is plenty of doubt as to how much of the election was economic vs. racism, and in the absense of hard data, suggesting (and suggesting is all they have done) is not promulgating “alternative facts”. The only question is the relative proportions, not their existence.

    Second, real alternative facts, the stuff that Republicans deal in with such abandon, are things like denying climate change, touting the voodoo of tax cuts (since all the evidence shows otherwise), or dealing in “death panels” or claiming that Obamacare is failing (or at least, saying to before they finish sabotaging it).

    Will anything ever cure reporters of indulging in this kind of false dichotomy?

  4. Canadian Steve says

    I think the question (with regards to the narrow focus of winning an election) that is more important is “which voters could have been convinced to vote democrat with a better campaign?” rather than “How many people voted for Trump were motivated by racism?”
    The reality is the vast majority of voters whose first motivator was racism would not in any circumstances have voted democrat, and did not vote democrat in any election, so despite the fact that these people exist, are emboldened in media, and have gained greater power, this is not the reason the democrats lost. They may account for 30% in the popular vote, but probably at most a 0.05% swing between Obama and Clinton and Obama won easily.
    A fair analysis of who your typical Republican voter is definitely needs to include racism. A fair analysis of why Clinton lost needs to consider that racism was probably not the deciding factor in her achievement of losing to the worst candidate in history.

  5. KG says

    The main target should surely be the huge numbers of people who didn’t vote at all. The USA has scandalously low turnouts.

  6. lanir says

    People don’t vote on one issue. The sales job political campaigns do is sell a bundle of issues as things people should care about. If you like enough of them you vote for them. If you don’t, you vote for someone else.

    I’m never going to agree with racists about any of the BS they spout off about race. They are obviously being willfully ignorant on the topic and I will not be dragged down into that mire of despicable idiocy and falsehood. But neither of us gets to live in a world where the other (and their associated viewpoints) does not exist. So we both have to buy cars and groceries and maybe pay rent or a mortgage. We all eat, sleep, use the restroom, and remain aware of other people who do not think as we do.

    The political campaigns just need to make sure they address these similarities in a compelling way more than they divide us based on our differences. Oddly enough I think this might entail hard campaigning on the more bland elements of the particular campaign. When the other guy is saying fire is cold and ice is hot, I think you might be better off relentlessly reminding people that you’re more in touch with reality. It’s not safe to assume that everyone will realize that on their own while you talk about whatever it is you really want to sell to your base.

  7. hyphenman says

    @ KG, No. 5,

    That’s true. You’re absolutely correct. Donald Trump won the minority, around 25 percent, of the Americans who were eligible to vote (and the minority of those who did cast ballets as well). I’m sure there are multiple reasons why people chose not to, or were unable to, vote but that they did not vote is a great stain on our country.

    Jeff Hess

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