Fear of losing status, not economic hardship, drew votes to Trump
Enough time has passed since the 2016 presidential election that researchers are getting a better idea of what drove voters’ choices in this wild election. Many of the talking points thus far have revolved around how the white working class voted for President Donald Trump because they faced a downturn in job opportunities and wages under President Barack Obama. However, a new study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences has found significant evidence that points to these voters picking President Trump because they felt left behind – but not for financial or economic-related reasons.
The research team analyzed survey data from a nationally representative panel of the same 1,200 American voters polled in 2012 and again in 2016. The results showed that traditionally high-status Americans – mostly caucasians – believe their status in America and around the globe is threatened by America’s growing racial diversity, as well as a perceived loss of U.S. global dominance. These socially dominant groups increased their support in 2016 for the candidate they thought put an emphasis on reestablishing the status hierarchies that had previously been in place.
During the 2016 election, the majority of voters supported the candidate of the same party they voted for in 2012 – which is a typical trend. But what changed between 2012 and 2016 that led to a Republican – and specifically Donald Trump – winning the election?
While on the campaign trail, President Trump’s messaging focused on acknowledging the fears of Americans who currently hold the dominant status in society. This group is mostly made up of white, Christian, males – or a combination of the three. Diana C. Mutz, the lead researcher from the University of Pennsylvania, found that many of those in this group switched from voting Democrat in 2012 to Republican in 2016.
“Political uprisings are often about downtrodden groups rising up to assert their right to better treatment and more equal life conditions relative to high-status groups,” says Mutz. “The 2016 election, in contrast, was an effort by members of already dominant groups to assure their continued dominance and by those in an already powerful and wealthy country to assure its continued dominance.”
Americans’ personal positions on topics such as trade, immigration, and the threat posed by China didn’t experience a dramatic change between 2012 and 2016. Rather, the American public became more open to citizenship for undocumented immigrants than four years prior. However, Americans’ perceptions of where the Republican candidate stood in 2016 compared to 2012 – especially on issues such as free trade and the threat of China – did shift. This contributed significantly to voters switching from voting Democrat in the past, to voting Republican in 2016.
Contrary to popular talking points, this study found no connection between an individual’s financial hardship and their voting for Trump. Furthermore, Trump won the election during a time of economic recovery, with unemployment dropping and economic indicators trending positively.
“The 2016 election was a result of anxiety about dominant groups’ future status rather than a result of being overlooked in the past,” explains Mutz. “In many ways, a sense of group threat is a much tougher opponent than an economic downturn, because it is a psychological mindset rather than an actual event or misfortune. Given current demographic trends within the United States, minority influence will only increase with time, thus heightening this source of perceived status threat.”