Our research suggests this approach isn’t likely to work.
To understand why, we must first consider that most of the discussion on Trump’s racist rhetoric focuses on the potential of this type of message to energize his base. But it’s also important to understand how the rest of the electorate responds to these tweets and statements. We find that the backlash from the president’s racist rhetoric is likely to offset any electoral benefit from Trump’s base.
Here’s how we did our research
In July 2018, we conducted a survey of 1,379 likely voters, fielded for us by NORC at the University of Chicago and funded by Cornell’s Center for the Study of Inequality. We measured attitudes toward African-Americans and immigrants with six questions designed to elicit whether respondents feel resentment or benevolence toward these groups. Here’s one of the questions, asking whether respondents (strongly) agreed or disagreed with the statement, “Many groups in the U.S., like Irish, Italian, and Jewish people, have overcome prejudice and worked their way up. Blacks should do the same without any special favors.”
We averaged responses to all six questions into a single measure, where the highest score (1) indicates strong resentment toward minorities and immigrants on every question and the lowest score (0) indicates strong benevolence toward these groups on every question.
Part of the Trump base argument implies that his strongest supporters will embrace his racist and xenophobic rhetoric. Indeed, a recent Fox News poll showed that Republican men and women were the most likely to agree that Trump’s “go back” tweets were an acceptable political attack.
A complementary picture emerges from our data in the 2020 battleground states. Those who strongly approve of Trump — represented by the red bars in the graph below — mostly indicate higher levels of racial resentment. This can be seen in the height of the bars clustered toward the right side of the scale.
However, among those who strongly disapprove of Trump in these same states – the blue bars – even more likely voters indicate strongly benevolent attitudes on race and immigration, as indicated by the height of the bars clustered near zero. These are the voters who are likely to be offended by Trump’s racist remarks, perhaps becoming more motivated to turn out on the Democratic side as a result.
Some analysts will say that those who oppose Trump would turn out and vote Democratic regardless of Trump’s racist remarks. But history teaches otherwise. For example, African Americans, who overwhelmingly vote Democratic, were less likely to vote in 2016 than 2012.
Turnout matters, and Trump’s record of racist rhetoric may be making some Democrats more likely to vote. Indeed, Republican Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.), who nearly lost his seat to Beto O’Rourke in 2016, recently acknowledged the potential for Trump’s actions to boost Democratic turnout in 2020.
What about independents?
What about independents, a group often considered pivotal in presidential elections? If a clear majority of them harbored racial resentment, then Trump’s strategy may still pay off.
But this is not the case, according to our survey. Almost 60 percent of our independent likely voters expressed attitudes on the benevolent side of the scale. This is consistent with a recent USA Today/IPSOS poll showing that most independents thought Trump’s “go back” tweets were offensive and un-American, and with evidence that racially prejudiced views have declined since 2016. Racist rhetoric could backfire not only by motivating Trump’s opponents to turn out to vote, but also by turning away independents.
We also analyzed all likely voters and those who were undecided during the 2018 midterm campaign. No matter how we looked at the data, we could not find any clear evidence that racist comments are a net benefit for Trump’s re-election chances.
These findings are consistent with recent political patterns. Not only did Democrats make major gains in the midterms when Trump doubled-down on his xenophobic rhetoric, the strategic focus on immigration in 2018 may have hurt Republicans. That Trump’s approval ratings are net negative despite a strong economy may also signal that his rhetoric isn’t working.
So why do so many in Trump’s camp seem to believe that racist rhetoric will help his chances in 2020? One possibility is that the political calculus is wrong. If strategists only show the president and his team the top graph above, it would be easy to conclude that racist rhetoric should yield large electoral gains. However, when we analyze the total expected effect of Trump’s rhetoric, it’s a different story.
The bottom line? Trump’s race-baiting may actually cost him votes in 2020.
Peter K. Enns (@pete_enns) is associate professor of government, executive director of the Roper Center for Public Opinion Research, and co-director of the Center for Social Sciences at Cornell University.