Why did Donald Trump win the 2016 presidential election? In the 20 months since his surprise victory, scholars have taken a deep dive into election-related data seeking answers. Although a full consensus has yet to emerge, they have zeroed in on two likely explanations: race and economics. (While not necessarily mutually exclusive, they are often presented as such.) The case for race is typically based in part on surveys showing that Trump voters score high on measures of “racial resentment,” an index based on responses to a series of questions regarding respondents’ views toward school desegregation, the fair treatment of blacks in employment, the federal government’s role in assisting blacks, and affirmative action in employment and education. The goal of these and similar surveyed-based indices is to identify underlying racial biases that respondents might otherwise be reluctant to reveal. According to scholars utilizing these measures, the higher racial resentment scores among Trump’s supporters is evidence that his victory reflected his ability to stoke latent racial animus among white voters, particularly those in the lower socioeconomic strata.
Not all scholars buy the race-based explanation for Trump’s victory. Morris Fiorina, in his analysis of race, class and identity in the 2016 elections, points out that white support for the Democratic presidential candidate declined from 2012 and 2016. This, he says, raises the perplexing question of “how racism would lead millions of whites who voted for and approved a black president to desert a white Democrat.” One answer is that the “racial resentment” index is not actually identifying racial bias, but instead is tapping into a strain of conservative ideology that opposes race-based policies. In an innovative attempt to discern what racial resentment scores are actually measuring, Riley Carney and Ryan Enos substitute groups other than African-Americans into the racial resentment questions. They find that conservatives’ responses to these questions do not appreciably change when other groups are referenced. Based on these findings, they suggest that, at least for conservatives, racial resentment scores are not measuring racial bias against any particular group so much as a more general belief in a “just world” in which, ideally, one is rewarded for working hard and playing by the rules.
Survey questions, and the racial indices constructed from them, are useful methods of gauging underlying sentiments that respondents might otherwise be reluctant to express. But, in addition to the questions of interpretation cited above, these surveys limit respondents to answering a specific set of questions that may not fully capture the range of sentiments behind their voting behavior. To get around these limits, I conducted a series of open-ended conversations with several dozen Trump supporters at four of his campaign rallies during the 2016 presidential campaign. Their responses provide additional insight into the motivation of Trump voters.
A recurring theme in these conversations was a belief among Trump supporters that, through no fault of their own, they were living in a world in which working hard was no longer a guarantee of success. Citing issues like trade and immigration, they told me that the rules of the game by which they were raised no longer insured a level playing field. These responses are consistent with the “just world” thesis advanced by Carney and Enos in their experimental studies.
However, this does not preclude a racial component to Trump’s support. Even if his voters were not motivated by racial animus, they may still have harbored a shared racial identity rooted in the belief that, as a group, they were adversely affected by what they saw as a rigged political and economic system. It is true that Trump voters were not economically any worse off than were supporters of other candidates. However, in the interviews I conducted, I was struck by how often his supporters talked not about their own economic status, but instead about their fears for their children’s futures. As one Trump supporter in New Hampshire explained to me, “These people still believe in the American Dream about getting ahead, but they think it is slipping away from us.” Similarly, many respondents described their support for Trump as a response to the economic downturn they saw in their communities, rather than in their own home.
These comments are consistent with studies showing a correlation between Trump’s support and the impact of trade on jobs, disparities in health across communities and, particularly in the Midwest where Trump made surprising gains, an unstable housing market. Even though Trump’s supporters might be comparatively well off, they often lived in places where they observed economic hardship that disproportionately affected those on the lower end of the socioeconomic spectrum.
For his part, Trump proved very effective at validating this perspective. After hearing journalists and political elites routinely describe them as xenophobic, misogynistic and racist, his supporters seemed gratified that Trump recognized their views as a valid response to decades of stagnant wages, lost jobs, and declining hope for the future against the backdrop of a political system that seemed to ignore their concerns. At last, his supporters told me, someone is actually listening to what we are saying, rather than trying to castigate our hidden motives. In short, Trump gave voice to a significant portion of the electorate that felt their concerns were not being addressed by the political establishment.
In contrast, Hillary Clinton ran a campaign that by historical standards, was unusually focused on attacking her opponent’s fitness for office, as opposed to addressing the socioeconomic conditions that concerned many of Trump’s supporters. Even without her ill-fated description of half of Trump’s supporters as belonging in a “basket of deplorables” characterized by “racist, sexist, homophobic, xenophobic, Islamaphobic” views, one can understand why her campaign strategy may have cued a different voting calculus among some white voters than did Obama’s more economically-focused 2012 campaign against Mitt Romney.
Why did Trump defy predictions to win the 2016 presidential campaign? Analysts continue to sift through the data and, while it is likely they will not fully agree on a single answer, the evidence to date is consistent with the idea that Trump’s message resonated with the concerns of lower- and middle-income white voters in key states who viewed the political system as increasingly unresponsive to their interests. While there was undoubtedly a racial component to Trump’s support, it appears predicated less on racial animus against other groups and more on a shared sense that on key issues, the rules of the game were increasingly stacked against them. By attacking the characteristics of the candidate who spoke to their interests, to say nothing of their motives for supporting him, Clinton may have inadvertently contributed to that group solidarity, thus fueling an erosion of support among many white voters who backed Obama in 2012.