Observers trying to understand Donald Trump's rise have traditionally pointed to two separate but equal drivers of the GOP presidential candidate's popularity: economic and racial anxieties.
More recent data is bringing the drivers of Trumpism into sharper focus, and what we're seeing is striking: Racial attitudes may play a larger role in opinions toward Trump than once thought. Economic concerns, on the other hand, don't seem to have as much of an impact on support for Trump.
Two recent studies bear this out. In the first, Hamilton College political scientist Philip Klinkner analyzed data from the 2016 American National Election Study (ANES) survey (a representative sample of 1,200 Americans) to compare feelings and attitudes toward Donald Trump and Democratic rival Hillary Clinton. He explored how economic opinions, racial attitudes and demographic variables predicted an individual's feelings toward Trump and Clinton. He found that one factor was much stronger than the other:
"My analysis indicates that economic status and attitudes do little to explain support for Donald Trump," he wrote for Vox last week. More to the point, "those who express more resentment toward African Americans, those who think the word 'violent' describes Muslims well, and those who believe President Obama is a Muslim have much more positive views of Trump compared with Clinton," Klinkner found.
In Klinkner's data, responses to questions such as "Do you think people’s ability to improve their financial well-being is now better, worse, or the same as it was 20 years ago?" and "Compared with your parents, do you think it is easier, harder, or neither easier nor harder for you to move up the income ladder?" had little effect on a person's preference for Trump or Clinton.
But, Klinkner found, racial attitudes were highly determinative:
Moving from the least to the most resentful view of African Americans increases support for Trump by 44 points, those who think Obama is a Muslim (54 percent of all Republicans) are 24 points more favorable to Trump, and those who think the word "violent" describes Muslims extremely well are about 13 points more pro-Trump than those who think it doesn’t describe them well at all.
In March, The Washington Post conducted a similar analysis using data from a national poll co-sponsored with ABC News, comparing Trump's support to the other Republican primary candidates. The survey questions were somewhat more personal than the ones in Klinkner's analysis, asking the Republican and Republican-leaning respondents whether they themselves were struggling economically and whether white people's troubles were a direct result of "preferences for blacks and Hispanics."
Like Klinkner, my colleagues Max Ehrenfreund and Scott Clement found that Trump received a plurality of support — 43 percent — from respondents who expressed racial resentment. But they also found that economic anxiety played a significant role: 40 percent of respondents who said they were struggling gave their support to Trump, far more than any other candidate.
"Those who voiced concerns about white status appeared to be even more likely to support Trump than those who said they were struggling economically," Clement and Ehrenfreund wrote, "but the results did not clearly show which concern was more important among Trump’s coalition."
Some pundits — and even Sen. Bernie Sanders — have hypothesized that the economic anxiety among some Trump supporters might be behind the negative racial attitudes. In a "Face the Nation" interview late last year, Sanders said that "what Trump has done with some success is taken that [economic] anger, taken those fears which are legitimate and converted them into anger against Mexicans, anger against Muslims."
Clement and Ehrenfreund's analysis suggests that's not true for at least some of Trump's backers, who appear to be supporting the candidate simply because of personal financial insecurity or other reasons. In Klinkner's analysis, racial attitudes stood completely on their own as powerful drivers of support for Donald Trump.
New data published by the Pew Research Center last week seems to back up Klinkner's conclusion. "An analysis of 'feeling thermometer' ratings of Trump finds that attitudes about immigration, Islam and racial diversity are strongly associated with Republican voters’ views of the presumptive GOP presidential nominee," Pew's researchers write. "Other political values — including opinions about whether the U.S. economic system is unfair and whether business profits are excessive — are less closely linked to feelings about Trump."
Pew's numbers come from its own nationally representative survey of 4,385 adults, conducted from April to May of this year. Surveyors analyzed the effect of a variety of social, racial and political views, as well as demographic characteristics, to see which had the biggest effect on Republicans' feelings toward Trump. The results of that analysis are in the chart below.
The biggest predictor of Trump support among Republican and Republican-leaning voters was a belief that "the growing number of newcomers from other countries threatens U.S. values." Republicans holding this belief felt 18 points more positively toward Trump, on a 100-point scale, than Republicans who didn't feel this way.
Belief that Islam encourages violence, and that it's "bad" for the country that blacks, Latinos and Asians will someday make up the majority of the population, accounted for eight-point jumps in positive feelings toward Trump.
Identifying strongly as Republican, being male, being older than 50, and not having a college degree were also predictors of Trump support. Among Pew's questions about the economy, the only one that had a statistically significant impact on Trump support was a belief that "businesses make too much profit," which bolstered Trump support by six points.
However, it's important to note that the poll questions in Pew's analysis, like Klinkner's, addressed respondents' views of the economy as a whole, rather than their own financial well-being.
Still, these two new studies do strongly suggest that racial anxiety is a powerful factor driving support for the GOP nominee today.
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