Trump voters and economic distress

Just a quick post to draw your attention to a new study on a perennial topic: what drives voters to Trumpism? It’s from the Democracy Fund Voter Study Group, available here.

When Donald Trump first came to political prominence, then to an unlikely victory, the standard narrative was that his rise was propelled by the economic anxieties that globalisation had created among the white working class (or, sometimes, the white middle class – Americans tend to use the two interchangeably).

But this never fitted the available data. At the beginning of last year, Zack Beauchamp set out in some detail the evidence that Trump voters were motivated not by economic concerns, but by xenophobia: by “fear of difference and social change.”

Pretty much every serious study since then has confirmed that conclusion, without making any great impact on the conventional wisdom. But perhaps the Voter Study Group’s findings will change that.

Their analysis has a new twist to it. They realised that just asking people whether or not they’re economically distressed is unhelpful, because the results are contaminated by politics: people feel better about their economic situation when their side is in power, regardless of the objective conditions.

We’ve known for a long time that this happens with opinions on policy issues: Republican voters, for example, switched from being anti- to pro-Russian following the advent of Trump. As I remarked last year, “Voters don’t choose their political preference based on their views about policy, they tailor their views on policy to their political preferences.”

But extending the idea to economic circumstances is a breakthrough. The Voter Study Group controlled for partisanship by asking “detailed questions about the state of their personal finances and the experience of hardships,” and found that on that basis, “Unlike economic ‘anxiety’ as traditionally measured, economic distress has a modest relationship with partisanship,” and that it was “more strongly correlated with support for liberal [i.e. left-wing], not conservative, economic policies.”

They also found that those still experiencing economic distress were less likely to approve of Trump’s performance than others of their political leaning – which would be unsurprising, even obvious, if it did not contradict so many pundits’ assumptions.

Go read the whole thing.

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