In a detailed analysis of the geography of Donald Trump’s vote, Neil Irwin and Josh Katz of the New York Times recently wrote that geographic pockets of unhyphenated Americans — whites who define their ancestry to be “American” rather than a specific European heritage — “turn out to be the places Donald Trump’s presidential campaign has performed the strongest.” Here’s how they put it:
… [W]e compared hundreds of demographic and economic variables from census data, along with results from past elections, with this year’s results in the 23 states that have held primaries and caucuses. We examined what factors predict a high level of Trump support relative to the total number of registered voters.
The analysis shows that Trump counties are places where white identity mixes with long-simmering economic dysfunctions.
The political importance of unhyphenated Americans is not new. After the 2008 election, we found that the larger the share of unhyphenated Americans in a county, the fewer votes Barack Obama got from that county, in both the primaries and the general election.
And that’s significant. As one of us (Arbour) will show in forthcoming research, over the last political generation, Republicans have won an increasing share of votes in regions with concentrations of unhyphenated Americans. That trend accelerated and intensified during the Obama administration.
In other words, this isn’t just about Trump.
Who are these unhyphenated Americans? These are white respondents who answer “American” to the Census Bureau question, “What is the person’s ancestry or ethnic origin?” When the American Community Survey (ACS) asks the question, it suggests a wide variety of countries as possible answers — and not one of them is the United States. Nevertheless, in the most recent ACS, released in 2014, fully 7 percent of all respondents — and 10.8 percent of non-Hispanic whites — wrote “America.”
Why? Sociologists believe that answer does not come from a person’s ignorance of their European origins or from extreme patriotism. Rather, it involves the individual’s changing perceptions of his or her own ethnicity in light of the gradual erosion of ancestral ties among American whites. This trend is especially pronounced among those whose ancestors immigrated to the United States in the 18th century from Northern and Western Europe.
The people who identify this way are concentrated in Appalachia and rural areas in and around the South. They are heavily Protestant and less likely than average to have graduated college. They cluster especially along the migration path taken by highland Southerners before the Civil War — those farmers from the hardscrabble Southern hills who never had enough money to buy land in the fertile parts of the Deep South and who moved from the Appalachian highlands across the Upper South and into the near Southwest.
Understanding voting patterns in regions with concentrations of unhyphenated Americans helps explain the results of the 2008 election and other recent elections. And as Irwin and Katz correctly noted, these regions are distinct again this year; they are breaking toward Trump. The map below shows Trump’s primary vote share by county where data were available. The map shows his strength across the Deep South, especially in bands of northern Mississippi and Alabama. And he does well in Appalachian regions such as southeast Ohio, eastern Kentucky and southwest Virginia. Compare the two maps, and you can see that where the unhyphenated live overlaps with where Trump does well.
Why are “unhyphenateds” supporting Trump?
But are whites’ feelings of “American” ancestry why they support Trump, or is it just that Trump does well generally among downscale and rural voters? To find out, we ran a model that tests them together, using election results and county-level census data on American ethnic identity, socioeconomic status, race, religion, immigrant status and age.
Here’s what we found: When we control for those other factors, places with more unhyphenated Americans do indeed vote more strongly for Trump. For every 10 percent increase in a county’s share of unhyphenated voters, we found about 3 percent more support for Trump. He loses voters as a county’s median income and education levels increase.
In the New York Times, Irwin and Katz also showed that markers of low socioeconomic status — high numbers of white high school dropouts, mobile homes, “old economy” jobs or, as they put it, “…places where white identity mixes with long-simmering economic dysfunctions” — are also strongly correlated with the Trump vote. We found much the same thing, although the strength of the relationship between unhyphenated Americans and the Trump vote varied across states.
Interestingly, Trump’s support increases as the percentage of African Americans and immigrants in a county increases. Trump and his campaign have been criticized for bashing immigrants and for being slow to disavow the Ku Klux Klan’s support. We doubt, then, that blacks and immigrants are the ones voting for him. Rather, apparently those unhyphenated white GOP primary voters are pulling the lever for Trump’s anti-immigrant and anti-minority platform and attitudes specifically because they feel threatened by those “others.” Some scholars refer to it as the “racial threat” hypothesis.
Preliminary research by one of us (Arbour) shows that regions with concentrations of unhyphenated Americans also voice more racial resentment than the rest of the country — and even more than in the rest of the South. That fits well with previous findings reported at the Monkey Cage showing connections between support for Trump and ethnocentrism, economic resentment, fear of a majority-minority United States, an individual’s economic struggles and white identity.
So who is voting for Trump? Whites who are many generations removed from their immigrant ancestors, so much so that they think of themselves only as “Americans”; who are struggling economically and feel left behind by the new global economy; who fear the country’s demographic shifts. They want to make America “great” again, in the way they believe it was, once, for their forebears.