The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Views about race mattered more in electing Trump than in electing Obama

In this photo taken Nov. 10, 2016, President Barack Obama meets with President-elect Donald Trump in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington. (Pablo Martinez Monsivais/Associated Press)

(This is the third of three posts.)

In the first and second posts of this series, I showed that racial attitudes became strongly connected to whether whites identified as Democratic or Republican during Barack Obama’s presidency. That, by itself, meant that racial attitudes would matter a great deal in 2016 — even above the powerful impact of partisanship itself.  There is now a stronger partisan divide than ever between racially sympathetic and racially resentful whites.

Indeed, the divide is so large it exceeds what was true in 2008 and 2012 — when there was an actual African American candidate on the ballot. The graphs below suggest that the effects of racial attitudes were greater in the 2016 election than their historically strong impact on Obama’s two presidential elections.

The graph compares the relationship between racial resentful beliefs, such as blaming racial inequality on black culture, and whites’ support for the Republican presidential nominee in 2008, 2012, and 2016.  Support for Trump was more tightly linked to racial resentment than support for John McCain and Mitt Romney in 2008 and 2012, respectively — even after controlling for party and ideology.

Drawing on data from the Public Religion Research Institute’s (PPRI) 2012 Race, Class and Culture and 2016 American Values Surveys, the next graph also shows that in 2016 whites were more divided based on their perceptions of discrimination against whites than they were in 2012.  As in the primaries, perceptions that whites are currently treated unfairly relative to minorities appeared to be an unusually strong predictor of support for Donald Trump in the general election.

Perhaps most importantly, this same pattern emerges among the exact same 825 white Americans who were first surveyed by RAND in 2012 for their American Life Panel (ALP) and then again for the Presidential Election Panel Survey (PEPS).  The graphs below show that both racial resentment and ethnocentrism — rating whites more favorably than other racial and ethnic minorities — were more closely linked to support for Donald Trump in 2016 than support for Mitt Romney in 2012.

These results come with caveats. Some voters may have been changing their racial attitudes to reflect their support or opposition to Donald Trump. Voters often alter their views based on their preferred presidential candidates’ positions — albeit less so for more strongly held beliefs such as attitudes about race. That could complicate our conclusion that racial attitudes were more important in 2016 than they were for Obama’s elections.

Nevertheless, these results strongly suggest that racial attitudes mattered more in 2016 than they did in 2008 and 2012. How could racial attitudes have become more influential in 2016 than they were in electing and reelecting the country’s first African American president?

First, Obama’s eight years in the White House made American politics more about race than it had been in modern times.  Racial attitudes spilled over into just about everything contrasted or contrasted with his presidency. Party identification, vote choices for Congress, public policy positions, and evaluations of prominent politicians (including Hillary Clinton) were all more divided by racial attitudes than they had been in the pre-Obama era. The heightened salience of race during Obama’s presidency ensured a prominent role for racial attitudes in the 2016 election, regardless of the candidates.

Moreover, Hillary Clinton moved to the left of Obama in both her rhetoric and policies on race-related issues in order to retain support from a coalition increasingly comprised of minorities and racially progressive whites. Democrats’ growing racial liberalism in 2016 may have accelerated defections from the party among racially resentful whites.

Donald Trump warns supporters that Democratic rival Hillary Clinton will accuse them of racism, saying that is a tired strategy of the Democratic party. (Video: The Washington Post)

But the most important factor was surely Trump. Obama polarized public opinion by racial attitudes primarily because of who he was, not because of what he said or did. Daniel Gillion’s new book shows that Obama spoke about race less than recent Democratic presidents and was criticized by black leaders and intellectuals for refusing to push for race-specific policies.

In stark contrast, Donald Trump repeatedly went where prior Republican presidential candidates were unwilling to go: making explicit appeals to racial resentment, religious intolerance, and white identity. So much so, in fact, that more than half of Americans consistently said that the term “racist” described Donald Trump in YouGov/Economist surveys conducted during the fall campaign.

Donald Trump’s racially divisive campaign inevitably made racial attitudes more important in the general election than if he had not been the Republican nominee. I showed earlier that racial attitudes were stronger predictors of whites’ preferences for Trump or Clinton than they were in hypothetical matchups between Clinton and Ted Cruz or Marco Rubio.

Much like Obama before him, Trump simply seems to make racial attitudes matter more in public opinion. That “Trump effect,” combined with eight years of racialized politics under President Obama, means that racial attitudes are now more closely aligned with white Americans’ partisan preferences than they have been at any time in the history of polling.

Conflict over racial and ethnic issues could rival ideological conflict as the dominant partisan cleavage in the Age of Trump.

Michael Tesler is associate professor of political science at UC Irvine and author of Post-Racial or Most-Racial? Race and Politics in the Obama Era.