On Tuesday, a New York Times special investigation revealed that President Trump received at least $413 million in today’s dollars from his father’s real estate empire over the course of his life — income that he shielded from inheritance taxes. The Times report concluded that Trump had participated in “dubious tax schemes . . . including instances of outright fraud.”
These revelations, while new to many Americans, are familiar to longtime Trump observers. Trump has downplayed his father’s role, asserting that Fred Trump gave him only “a small loan of $1,000,000.” Yet well before the new report was published, journalists and biographers had reported on court documents showing the president’s father provided loans, guaranteed loans and even bailed out Donald Trump’s Atlantic City casino — by buying $3.5 million worth of chips, an illegal way to underwrite a casino.
Do voters care about the source of Donald Trump’s wealth?
The recent report from the Times, while not the first to examine Trump’s finances, is perhaps the most comprehensive. It details not only the scope of his father’s involvement but also the possibly illegal ways both Fred and Donald Trump avoided paying taxes.
Many political observers and scholars may doubt that this report will change attitudes toward a politician so well-known and polarizing. Consider the research on what’s called “motivated reasoning,” which holds that individuals do not dispassionately seek facts with the goal of holding accurate views, but seek information that reaffirms their prior beliefs. This research has usually examined whether people are willing to absorb facts that may contradict their existing policy beliefs.
The short answer: no. Most people more readily absorb new information that bolsters what they already believe and either reject information that contradicts it or interpret it in a way that doesn’t challenge their opinions. Political scientists Brendan Nyhan, Ethan Porter, Jason Reifler and Thomas Wood find that fact checks that corrected Donald Trump’s claims during the 2016 campaign improved American citizens’ grasp of the facts — but had no measurable effect on attitudes toward him.
But politicians’ character traits and personal biography matter to voters
Few of these studies focus on personal biography. As campaign coverage has become more candidate-centric, the way Americans view politicians as people has become increasingly important. Political scientists have shown that voters infer character traits based on features they can see, such as race and gender. But they haven’t looked as closely at how key aspects of a candidate’s biography affect voter perceptions of personal character.
In ongoing research, we are testing whether biographical knowledge of Trump influences public opinion — and if so, how much. We’ve administered three surveys, the first in August 2016 by Survey Sampling International (SSI) on 2,500 respondents, the second in October 2017 by UMD Critical Issues Polls using Nielsen Scarborough on 1,000 respondents and the third in June 2018, also by UMD Critical Issues Polls through Nielsen Scarborough, on 400 respondents. All three samples were administered online using volunteer panels, though they were designed to be representative of the voting public. For all three samples, we applied probability weights to account for discrepancies between the sample and the broader voting public.
In our 2016 survey, 50 percent of Americans claimed that Trump was born something other than very wealthy, as did 37 percent in our 2017 survey and 49 percent in our 2018 survey. While the precise number varies, a substantial number of Americans across all three surveys remained ignorant of the Trump family’s wealth. Those who didn’t know he was born wealthy were likely to think more highly of Trump’s personal character and to support him more strongly in general.
Will new information change the way Americans view Trump?
We wanted to know whether learning how much Fred Trump helped his son would change how Americans viewed the president — and especially whether that might affect Democrats and Republicans differently, since most already have strong opinions about him. In a June 2018 survey fielded by Nielsen Scarborough, we randomly assigned half of the 394 Democrats and 311 Republicans in our sample to different groups. The first group received no new information before taking the survey. In the second group, we added this question:
To what extent were you aware that Donald Trump grew up the son of wealthy real estate businessman Fred Trump, started his business with loans from his father, and received loans worth millions of dollars from his father in order to keep his businesses afloat?
We then asked all our respondents, in both groups, to rate how well the phrases “He cares about people like you” and “He is a good businessman” described Donald Trump on a 1-to-5 scale, with 1 meaning “very poorly” and 5 meaning “very well.” To more easily interpret their responses, we focused only on the number of respondents who said these phrases described Trump “somewhat well” or “very well.” Here’s what we found.
How information about Trump’s inherited wealth affected perceptions of his character, by party identification
As you can see, the new information has a decidedly negative effect on whether partisans considered the president either compassionate or a good businessman. Even among Democrats, who already had a pretty poor opinion of Trump’s capacity for compassion, learning this lowers opinions even further.
Of course, some in our sample may already have known how much Trump’s father helped him along the way. And many Americans have already made up their minds about Trump. As a result, this news changed opinions only slightly. For example, only 5 percent of Democrats in the first group thought that the phrase “he cares about people like you” described Trump well — while none of the Democrats in the second group did.
Learning where Trump’s wealth came from might have changed voters’ opinions more before the election, when they hadn’t yet seen how he’d perform in office. Still, when directly exposed to this information earlier this year — although without Trump’s insistence that this reporting is “fake” — Republicans and Democrats alike change their evaluations. It’s possible that stories like this week’s New York Times piece may still shape public opinion toward the president — as long as Americans see them.
Jared A. McDonald (@JaredAMcDonald) is a PhD candidate in the department of government and politics at the University of Maryland in College Park whose research focuses on the role of empathy in voting behavior.