But exit-poll data showed that economics wasn’t the primary motivation for his base. States in which the vote was the closest saw those most worried about the economy voting for Hillary Clinton. What motivated Trump voters, it turned out, was his emphasis on immigration and terrorism. If “economic anxiety” was pushing Trump supporters to the polls, it seemed to manifest primarily as distrust of foreigners.
Exit polls aren’t perfect, of course, relying on a narrow set of questions and answers to divine the motivations of the electorate. But other data reinforces that Trump voters aren’t the group most stressed about economic conditions. New data from the Democracy Fund Voter Study Group suggests that it was Clinton voters who were struggling the most as the election loomed.
To determine economic security, the pollsters conducting the Views of the Electorate Research Survey (VOTERS) asked about the subject indirectly. Did the respondent or a spouse lose a job in the past 12 months? Had they had difficulty making a car payment or mortgage payment? How satisfied are they with their income? The responses from those and other questions were used to create a metric of economic distress. And across income groups, it was Clinton voters, not Trump voters, who expressed the most distress.
There’s one reason that might jump out at an observer. About 40 percent of Democrats are nonwhite, according to Pew Research Center data, more than twice the density of the Republican Party. As the VOTERS data indicates, nonwhites were generally more likely to agree with the distress indicators than were whites.
So across income groups, nonwhites were, on average, more likely to express distress. The difference is so stark that nonwhites with college degrees — a status that correlates to higher incomes — expressed more economic distress than whites without degrees nearly across the board.
Nonwhite voters also heavily opposed Trump’s candidacy. The data above, then, raises the prospect that white voters who preferred Trump did express more distress than whites who opposed him.
Except they didn’t. In every income quintile, white Democrats also expressed more economic distress than white Republicans.
This holds true among those who voted for Clinton and Trump, too. In other words, it’s not the case necessarily that those white Democrats who feel more economic distress crossed the aisle to vote for Trump; white Clinton voters express more economic distress across income quintiles than white Trump voters.
This data is imperfect as a guide to 2016. The measurements occurred after the election was over, meaning that it’s possible that the same patterns didn’t hold during the election itself.
But they also comport with the other evidence at hand, including that the reason Trump saw so much support from non-college-educated whites was a function of racial attitudes, not economic ones. There are a lot of indicators that Trump’s support wasn’t predicated on economics as much as it was on his cultural appeal, which the new data reinforces.
There’s a tweet that President Trump offered last month that seems odd, given his supporters' frequent insistence that his support is based on economic populism.
The new data suggests that such tweets are ill-advised: Among Republicans expressing more economic distress, Trump’s approval is 10 points lower than among less-distressed members of his party.
He might worry that those voters will express their economic anxiety electorally in 2020.