What changed was the importance of identity. Attitudes toward immigration, toward black Americans, and toward Muslims were more correlated with voting Republican in 2016 than in 2012. Put a little differently, Barack Obama won re-election with the support of voters who held negative views toward blacks, Muslims, and immigrants. Sides notes that “37% of white Obama voters had a less favorable attitude toward Muslims” while 33% said “illegal immigrants” were “mostly a drain.”
A separate analysis made late last year by political scientist Michael Tesler (and unrelated to the Voter Study Group) finds that 20 to 25% of white Obama voters opposed interracial dating, a decent enough proxy for racial prejudice. Not all of this occurred during the 2016 campaign—a number of white Obama voters shifted to the GOP in the years following his re-election. Nonetheless, writes Sides, “the political consequences in 2016 were the same: a segment of white Democrats with less favorable attitudes toward these ethnic and religious minorities were potential or actual Trump voters.”
What caused this shift in the salience of race and identity (beyond the election of a black man in 2008) and augured an increase in racial polarization? You might point to the explosion of protests against police violence between 2012 and 2016, and the emergence of Black Lives Matter, events that sharply polarized Americans along racial lines.
And in the middle of 2015 arrived the Trump campaign, a racially demagogic movement that blamed America’s perceived decline on immigrants, Muslims, and foreign leaders, and which had its roots in Donald Trump’s effort to delegitimize Barack Obama as a noncitizen, or at least not native-born.
But the fact that Trump primed and activated racial views doesn’t immediately mean those white Obama voters acted on them. Which brings us to Drutman’s analysis of the Voter Study Group.
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Drutman plots the electorate across two axes—one measuring economic views, the other measuring views on identity—to build a political typology with four categories: liberals, conservatives, libertarians, and populists.
Liberals, the largest single group, hold left or left-leaning views on economics and identity.
Libertarians, the smallest group, hold right-leaning views on economics but leftward beliefs on identity. Conservatives are third largest, with right-leaning views on both indices, while populists—the second largest group—are the inverse of libertarians, holding liberal economic views and conservative beliefs on identity.
Most populists, according to Drutman, were already Republican voters in the 2012 election, prizing their conservative views on identity over liberal economic policies. A minority, about 28%, backed Obama. But four years later, Clinton could only hold on to 6 in 10 of those populist voters who had voted for Obama. Most Democratic defectors were populists, and their views reflect it: They hold strong positive feelings toward Social Security and Medicare, like Obama voters, but are negative toward black people and Muslims, and see themselves as “in decline.”
This is a portrait of the most common Obama-to-Trump voter: a white American who wants government intervention in the economy but holds negative, even prejudiced, views toward racial, ethnic, and religious minorities. In 2012, these voters seemed to value economic liberalism over a white, Christian identity and backed Obama over Romney.
By 2016, the reverse was true: Thanks to Trump’s campaign, and the events of the preceding years, they valued that identity over economic assistance. In which case, you can draw an easy conclusion about the Clinton campaign—even accounting for factors like misogyny and James Comey’s twin interventions, it failed to articulate an economic message strong enough to keep those populists in the fold and left them vulnerable to Trump’s identity appeal. You could then make a firm case for the future: To win them back, you need liberal economic populism.
But there’s another way to read the data. Usually, voters in the political crosscurrents, like Drutman’s populists, have to prioritize one of their chief concerns. That’s what happened in 2008 and 2012. Yes, they held negative views toward nonwhites and other groups, but neither John McCain nor Mitt Romney ran on explicit prejudice. Instead, it was a standard left vs. right ideological contest, and a substantial minority of populists sided with Obama because of the economy.
That wasn’t true of the race with Trump.
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He tied his racial demagoguery to a liberal-sounding economic message, activating racial resentment while promising jobs, entitlements, and assistance.
Untethered from the conservative movement, Trump had space to move left on the economy, and he did just that. For the first time in recent memory, populist voters didn’t have to prioritize their values. They could choose liberal economic views and white identity, and they did.
This fact makes it difficult to post hypotheticals about the election. It’s possible a more populist campaign would have prevented those Obama defections. But a Trump who blurs differences on economic policy is a Trump who might still win a decisive majority of those voters who want a welfare state for whites. In the context of 2016, that blend of racial antagonism and economic populism may have been decisive. (The other option, it should be said, is that with a more populist presidential campaign, Democrats might have activated lower-turnout liberal voters, thus making Obama-to-Trump voters irrelevant.)
The good news for Democrats—and the even better news for the populist left—is that unless Trump makes a swift break with the Republican Party, his combined economic and identity-based appeal was a one-time affair. In 2020, if he runs for re-election, Trump will just be a Republican, and while he’s certain to prime racial resentment, he’ll also have a conservative economic record to defend. In other words, it will be harder to muddy the waters. And if it’s harder to muddy the waters, then it’s easier for Democrats—and especially a Democratic populist—to draw the distinctions that win votes.