Donald Trump’s campaign will be remembered for many reasons, not the least of which is his tenuous relationship to the truth. PolitiFact has repeatedly documented Trump’s unprecedented rate of false claims and in 2015 named him the recipient of the Lie of the Year Award.
Despite this, Trump’s support remains high in many states even as some of the most important Republican leaders have turned their backs on him. This has left many experts puzzled. Why do so many people continue to support Trump in the face of these false claims?
Many commentators have noted what Thomas Edsall has called the “great democratic inversion,” where voters have become more polarized by education — with less-educated voters gravitating to Trump. But focusing only on education obscures another key factor: whether voters have lower levels of knowledge about politics and less interest in using ideas to understand politics. These attributes do not simply reflect voters’ level of formal education.
Our research finds that Trump has attracted a disproportionate (and unprecedented) number of “low-information voters” to his campaign. Furthermore, these voters are more likely to respond to emotional appeals — whether about the economy, immigration, Muslims, racial relations, sexism, and even hostility to the first African American U.S. president, Barack Obama. They are the ideal constituency for a candidate like Trump.
We define low-information voters as those who do not know certain basic facts about government and lack what psychologists call a “need for cognition.” Those with a high need for cognition have a positive attitude toward tasks that require reasoning and effortful thinking and are, therefore, more likely to invest the time and resources to do so when evaluating complex issues. Those with a low need for cognition, on the other hand, find little reward in the collection and evaluation of new information when it comes to problem solving and the consideration of competing issue positions. They are more likely to rely on cognitive shortcuts, such as “experts” or other opinion leaders, for cues.
Drawing on data from the 2016 American National Election Studies Pilot Studies, we measured the need for cognition based on whether respondents agreed or disagreed that “Thinking is not my idea of fun” and “I would rather do something that requires little thought than something that is sure to challenge my thinking abilities.” We measured knowledge of government based on a question asking how long senators’ terms were and a question on which of four policy areas the government spends the least (the answer was foreign aid; the other options were Medicare, national defense and Social Security). We focused our analysis on whites because nonwhites were not supporting Trump in sufficient numbers.
Both of these measures were correlated with how much whites liked Trump, relative to Hillary Clinton, This was true even after accounting for education, income, age, gender, partisanship and ideology.
For example, we found that people who did not know either of these questions about government evaluated Trump 20 points more favorably than Clinton, compared with those who knew both of those questions. This was not true in 2012: Knowledge of politics had little relationship with people’s views of Mitt Romney and Obama.
Similarly, people who expressed less “need for cognition” evaluated Trump 12 points more favorably than Clinton, while those who expressed more need for cognition evaluated the two candidates roughly equally.
We also found that the effect of political knowledge and need for cognition may affect support for Trump via association with concern about the economy and attitudes toward Muslims, African Americans and immigrants. This suggests that voters who know less about politics may be attracted to Trump for these reasons, which also helps explain why they continue to support him in the face of his many mistruths. If they are willing to believe that Obama is a Muslim and that Muslims are inherently violent, for example, why wouldn’t they believe that the election is “rigged”?
To be sure, we should use caution in interpreting these findings. These data are from January 2016, and Trump’s support may well have shifted. He has lost ground among women in particular. Yet, his core constituency has proven remarkably stable. It is also important to note that “low-information voters” are not the entirety of Trump’s base of support. They are, however, a sizable bloc.
People have many good reasons for being mad about how the established political leadership has failed them, whether it is on trade deals, jobs, inequality, health care or other issues. Trump appeals to many of the disaffected. Nonetheless, a core part of his base is made up of low-information voters who appear more susceptible to Trump’s appeals based on race and religion and less prepared to challenge his misstatements and untruths.
Richard Fording is professor of political science at the University of Alabama at Tuscaloosa and Sanford Schram is professor of political science at Hunter College, CUNY. A full-length analysis of the research reported here is available here.