Why Trump Won: Economic and Racial Interpretations

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Following an annual tradition, strategists from the Trump and Clinton campaigns met at Harvard’s Institute of Politics to analyze the election campaign and its results. This year, the discussion quickly degenerated into a shouting match, as each campaign promoted its preferred account of how Trump won.

A particular bone of contention was the role of Stephen Bannon of Breitbart News in the Trump campaign. When David Bossie, Trump’s deputy campaign manager, called Bannon a “brilliant strategist,” Jennifer Palmieri, Clinton’s director of communications, replied, “If providing a platform for white supremacists makes me a brilliant tactician, I am more proud to have lost.” Kellyanne Conway, Trump’s campaign manager, rejected the suggestion that the campaign had appealed to white supremacy and shifted the discussion to Hillary Clinton’s weaknesses. “Do you think you could have just had a decent message for the white working-class voters? How about it’s Hillary Clinton, she doesn’t connect with people? How about they had nothing in common with her? How about you had no economic message?”

As Clinton herself charged during the campaign, Clinton’s team felt that Trump won by appealing to such ignoble sentiments as racism, misogyny and xenophobia. Not surprisingly, Trump supporters preferred a narrative emphasizing Trump’s economic appeal to struggling working-class families. Each narrative contains an element of truth, but they leave us with an explanation that is both incomplete and misleading.

Win, lose or draw?

First, a note of caution. Because this election was so close, commentators need to resist the urge to over-interpret it. Sweeping statements about what the American people are saying or assertions of popular mandates to take the country in a particular direction are likely to overstate the facts. Does the election of Donald Trump mean that most Americans want to build a wall on the Mexican border? Well no; exit polling found 41% for that, but 54% against it. Does it mean that they want to deport immigrants working illegally in the U.S.? No, only 25% are for deportation, and 70% are for offering some form of legal status. And in spite of the fact that both candidates expressed concerns about job losses due to trade deals, voters are quite split on the issue, with almost as many saying that international trade creates U.S. jobs as saying it takes away jobs.

This election even tells us less than usual about what people think of the winner. According to the exit polls, fewer voters had a favorable view of Trump than Clinton (38% vs. 43%); fewer viewed him as honest and trustworthy (33% vs. 36%); fewer regarded him as qualified to be president (38% vs. 52%); and fewer felt he had the temperament to be president (35% vs. 55%). With regard to Kellyanne Conway’s contention that Clinton doesn’t connect with people, Clinton beat Trump by a margin of 23 points among voters who said that the quality mattering most to them was that the candidate “cares about me.” She won by even bigger margins with voters who placed the highest value on having good judgment or the right experience.

All this makes one wonder how Donald Trump could win the election at all. A flippant answer is that he didn’t, at least not the popular vote, which Clinton won by 2.8 million votes and about 2 percentage points. Another answer is that voters overlooked Trump’s deficiencies because of something else they liked about him. He won by a 68-point margin among voters who were looking most for a candidate who could “bring change.” Among voters who regarded Trump as unqualified to be president, 17% voted for him anyway! That probably means they were more interested in rocking the boat than steering it in a sensible direction.

A few other findings from the exit polls indicate why the election was so close. Trump won white voters by a 20-point margin, men by 9 points, voters 45 and over by 8 points, non-college graduates by 7, Evangelical Christians by 64, veterans by 36, rural voters by 27 and suburban voters by 4. Clinton won black voters by an 81-point margin, Latinos by 38, Asians by 38, women by 13, voters under 45 by 14, Jews by 48, voters professing no religion by 42, union households by 9, gay lesbian bisexual or transgender voters by 63, and urban voters by 26. Demographically speaking, Trump represented more of what the country used to be, and Clinton represented more of what it is becoming.

The economic interpretation

Trump’s narrow victory in the so-called “rust-belt” states has led many commentators to imagine the typical Trump voter as a downwardly mobile worker, especially someone who has lost a manufacturing job. Trump beat Clinton by a wide margin (56 points) among voters who described their financial situation as worse than it was four years ago, but only 27% of voters were in that category. Slightly more voters felt that their situation had gotten better, and Clinton won by a 49-point margin there. I do think that Clinton could have done a better job addressing the concerns of the downwardly mobile. But I also respect her refusal to lie to the people of West Virginia by claiming she could bring back their lost coal mining jobs. Her opponent had no such inhibitions. (Coal jobs are being lost to automation and competition from cheap natural gas, not just Obama energy policy.)

Income data do not support the generalization that Trump supporters were especially economically distressed. Based on a crude classification by current income, they were not worse off than Clinton voters. The median income category for both Trump and Clinton voters was $50,000 to $99,000, although less than a third of voters were in that range. A higher percentage of Clinton voters than Trump voters had incomes below $50,000 (39% vs. 32%), while a slightly higher percentage of Trump voters than Clinton voters had incomes of $100,000 and up (36% vs. 33%).

Other data call into question the idea that Clinton lost by failing to address economic distress. Clinton led Trump by 11 points among voters who cited the economy as the most important issue facing the country. Trump led among those who cited immigration as the most important issue (by 31 points) or terrorism (by 17 points). Trump’s tough talk on immigration and terrorism may have done him more good than his promise to save manufacturing jobs. Without denying that certain voters supported him for purely economic reasons, there are other elephants in the room, especially Republican ones.

The racial interpretation

A very disturbing development in this election was the embrace of Donald Trump by white supremacist groups. However, focusing too much on overt racism can distract attention from the much subtler role that race plays in today’s politics. In particular, I want to call attention to the racial implications of the small-government conservatism that motivated so many of Trump’s supporters.

Trump did not only win the white vote by a 20-point margin. He won even more handily among voters who described themselves as conservatives (a 65-point margin), who disapproved of President Obama (83 points), who believed that Obamacare “went too far” (69 points) and who said that in general, government is “doing too much” (50 points). These views are very widely held, and they account for a larger share of the Trump vote than the specifically economic factors. They are especially widespread in the South. Yes, Trump won Michigan, but by less than one percentage point. He won Alabama by 28 points.

I had a good reminder last week of the connection between race and small-government conservatism, when I attended a lecture by Nancy MacLean, Professor of History and Public Policy at Duke University. She pointed out that the first manifesto in favor of school privatization and vouchers was published by economist Milton Friedman in 1955. Instead of running a public school system, the government should just give each family a certain amount of money and let them buy education in the marketplace. Coming just one year after the Supreme Court’s decision in Brown v. Board of Education, Friedman’s proposal found its most enthusiastic audience among Southerners who wanted to close public schools rather than desegregate them. Friedman defended himself against charges of racism by saying that he personally regarded integrated schools as preferable, but that the government couldn’t impose them without infringing on freedom of choice. This kind of opposition to “Big Government” has become a key argument in defense of traditional privileges and injustices that only government may have the power to fight.

As the Democratic Party gained support among minorities and women by advocating strong government measures to combat discrimination, Republicans discovered that they could gain the allegiance of white males, especially Southern white males, by placing limits on those efforts. In the name of freedom and limited government, Republicans became the party of resistance to such measures as affirmative action, the Equal Rights Amendment, and most recently, key enforcement provisions of the Voting Rights Act. In the latter case, racism and political gamesmanship are hard to distinguish, since Republicans in states like North Carolina have so much to gain by putting obstacles in the way of black voting.

Donald Trump defeated Hillary Clinton among white men by a 62% to 31% margin. True, many white men, especially the less educated, have suffered losses of jobs and income, and a few even crossed party lines to vote for Trump. But white men as a group remain the country’s top earners, although women and minorities have been gaining on them. And as a group, they have been reliably Republican for some time. Only 8% of Democrats or Republicans crossed party lines in their vote for president. The core of Trump’s support came from the white men who usually vote Republican, not because they are worse off than minorities or women, but because the Republican Party is more respectful of existing privileges. It is less likely to upset existing race/gender hierarchies. Trump won college-educated white men by a 14-point margin, and non-college-educated white men by a 48-point margin. The economic distress interpretation has some validity, especially in the less educated group. However, sociologists have long argued that status as a white man may be especially important to a man who lacks other sources of status, such as education. He may vote for the party that appeals to him as a white man, overlooking that party’s failure to address his needs as a working man.

When Democrats try to address issues of racial or gender discrimination, conservatives can accuse them of ignoring economic issues to pursue “identity politics.” Critics like Kellyanne Conway can claim that Democrats lose because they don’t have “a decent message for the white working-class voters.” Without denying that Democrats need to strengthen their economic message, this does not have to be an either-or. Democrats shouldn’t have to abandon their commitment to racial and gender equality in order to support a stronger economy. Many Democratic proposals, such as universal health insurance and affordable college education, are intended to help people of all races and genders. Yes, Democrats need to appeal to working-class white men, but those men must be willing to reach across racial lines to make common cause with minorities and women in similar circumstances. The mentality that forces politicians to choose between “us” and “them” just perpetuates racism and sexism.

Reconciling conservatism and change

How do Trump voters reconcile their conservative belief that government is “doing too much” already, with their desire for a president who will “bring change”? How can any president strengthen the economy, if government isn’t supposed to do very much? Voters may be managing this in several ways, either within Republican orthodoxy or outside of it.

Within Republican orthodoxy, they can fall back on the classic Reagan position that government is the problem, and not having government do certain things is the needed change. If government will just stop taxing and regulating so much, the economy will thrive. Whether that’s what most of the voters want or not, that will probably be the guiding philosophy of the Republican Congress, supported in most respects by the new president.

Beyond Republican orthodoxy, voters can make an exception to their anti-government position in the case of jobs programs. Government spending is okay as long as it puts people to work rather than helping people who aren’t working. Similarly, obtaining health insurance through your job is okay, but having to obtain it through a government exchange is socialism. However, public works programs are hard to pay for if you exempt too much of the country’s wealth from taxation.

For other conservatives calling for change, change can mean changing things back to the way they used to be. This is one way that economic nationalism fits in. Government can try to reverse the trend of manufacturing jobs flowing out or immigrants flowing in. That appeals especially to people who have lost faith in the economy’s ability to create new jobs. I suggest that economic nationalism is a form of conservatism that flourishes when more mainstream conservatism has failed to produce the promised growth in jobs and incomes, and when economic progressives have not yet come up with a convincing alternative.

In many respects, the Trump coalition is just a familiar Republican coalition, with enough extra votes in a few key states to win the election. To the extent that the Trump phenomenon is different, it may be an expression of a conservatism gone sour, a hostility not only to Big Government but to global forces that threaten the economic supremacy of the United States and other wealthy nations. It thrives among the downwardly mobile, but appeals to enough other people to fuel a revival of right-wing nationalism.

Why Trump won

The simplest generalizations about Trump voters–that they were downwardly mobile blue-collar workers or deplorable racists–do not stand up very well. Here are a few statements about why Trump won that I think the evidence will support:

  • Although Trump lost the popular vote, he won the electoral college vote by winning battleground states by small margins. Clinton won the most urbanized states by unnecessarily big margins.
  • Although Trump voters were not as a group economically worse off than Clinton voters, he did especially well among voters who said they were worse off than they were four years ago. That may have made the difference in states with big losses of manufacturing jobs. Overall, however, voters who cited the economy as their #1 issue favored Clinton.
  • Most of Trump’s support came from the groups that usually vote Republican, especially white males. This has little to do with any Republican policies favoring the working class, and much more to do with the party’s resistance to government activism, especially activism on behalf of women and minorities.
  • In addition to standard Republican hostility to Big Government, Trump appealed to voters who blame America’s problems on immigrants or foreign trade. This is not a majority view, but an increasingly popular one in troubled Western economies.

President Trump will have his hands full trying to meet the expectations of his various constituencies: traditional small-government Republicans who are interested primarily in tax cuts, deregulation and privatization; economic nationalists who want to deport immigrants and erect trade barriers; and unemployed or underemployed workers who want jobs programs.

 

 

 

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