By Ardfern (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 or GFDL], via Wikimedia Commons

June 14, 2017; Seattle Times

Donald Trump’s election victory sent surprised experts searching for what they had missed. All the major polls misread the presidential election. In the weeks after November 8th, credit was given to his campaign’s ability to speak to the economic concerns of white working-class voters. Books like Hillbilly Elegy, Deer Hunting with Jesus, and Strangers in Their Own Land gained prominence because they provided a picture of the hardworking but forgotten white voters who saw an economy and political system leaving them behind. Trump’s focus on rebuilding American industry and limiting foreign competition was seen as on-target for these voters. Yet, a series of studies looking at what really moved swing voters found that these concerns, while real, were secondary to these voters’ fears of people of color and immigrants.

Just this week, the Democracy Fund released the results of its ongoing look at 8,000 voters who they had been studying since before the 2012 election. They found that the election that turned the U.S. government on its head and is threatening to reverse decades of social progress was the result of a small minority of voters who moved into the Republican column.

Eighty-six percent of Obama 2012 voters voted for Clinton while nearly 89 percent of Romney voters supported Trump. Nine percent of Obama voters voted for Trump while five percent voted for a third-party candidate or a write-in, while five percent of Romney voters supported Clinton and six percent voted for a third-party candidate or write-in.

The outcome hinged on the reasons a small portion of the electorate decided to switch allegiances. For swing white voters, this study found “a correlation between beliefs about black people’s ability to progress in American society and feelings toward Muslims with vote switching.”

Voters who thought black people ought to and could move up in American society without special favors like prior immigrant groups who faced prejudice were more likely to switch from Obama to Trump, while those who disagreed were more likely to switch from Romney to Clinton. Voters expressing more negative feelings toward Muslims were also more likely to switch from Obama to Trump, but those reporting more positive feelings were not more likely to switch from Romney to Clinton.

Economic concerns matter, but only as a force that made cultural issues more significant.

These findings mirror those of earlier American National Election Study which found, as reported in NPQ, “White working-class voters, especially those in areas hit hard by plant and mine closings, were the wildcard that put enough Electoral College votes in the Trump column to elect him. What motivated them to make that choice? While economics and the growing appeal of authoritarian, ‘alt-right’ ideology played some part, the key factor, the one that makes this election different than others, appears to have been their racial bias.”

Christopher Parker, a University of Washington political science professor who had been one of the few scholars who predicted a Trump victory, described his reasons for seeing this unexpected outcome for the Seattle Times: “I’ve got three words for you: scared white people. Every period of racial progress in this country is followed by a period of retrenchment. That’s what the 2016 election was about, and it was plain as it was happening.”

Despite this growing body of data telling us that racial attitudes are influential forces shaping election outcomes, we seem unable to recognize how important they were and to remain focused on more “acceptable” economic concerns. From Professor Parker’s perspective, “Nobody wants to be told what they don’t want to hear. People want there to be a more innocent explanation, about jobs or trade or something. But sorry, everyone—it just isn’t there. My plea to people is we ought to start focusing on what’s real.”

Four special elections for open congressional seats have been held, and the Republicans have won them all. Yet, post-election analysis continues to see economic issues and how they are framed as the key ingredient that Republicans are mastering and Democrats are failing to grasp. It seems that we will not add fears of “the other” to our thinking. The conclusion NPQ reached in April, that “focusing on policy and legislation without directly confronting racial anger and hatred cannot change the landscape,” continues to resonate.—Martin Levine