Studies find racial anxiety is biggest driver of support for Donald Trump

By Christopher Ingraham analysis

Donald Trump speaks to supporters and bikers at a Rolling Thunder rally at the National Mall. Photo / AP
Donald Trump speaks to supporters and bikers at a Rolling Thunder rally at the National Mall. Photo / AP

Observers trying to understand Donald Trump's rise have traditionally pointed to two separate but equal drivers of the GOP presidential candidate's popularity: economic and racial anxieties.

As David Roberts wrote in Vox at the end of last year: "Are Trump supporters driven by economic anxiety or racial resentment? Yes."

More recent data is bringing the drivers of Trumpism into sharper focus, and what we're seeing is striking: Racial attitudes may play a larger role in opinions toward Trump than once thought. Economic concerns, on the other hand, don't seem to have as much of an impact on support for Trump.

Two recent studies bear this out. In the first, Hamilton College political scientist Philip Klinkner analysed data from the 2016 American National Election Study (ANES) survey (a representative sample of 1200 Americans) to compare feelings and attitudes toward Trump and Democratic rival Hillary Clinton. He explored how economic opinions, racial attitudes and demographic variables predicted an individual's feelings toward Trump and Clinton.

He found that one factor was much stronger than the other: "My analysis indicates that economic status and attitudes do little to explain support for Donald Trump," he wrote for Vox last week. More to the point, "those who express more resentment toward African Americans, those who think the word 'violent' describes Muslims well, and those who believe President Obama is a Muslim have much more positive views of Trump compared with Clinton", Klinkner found.

In Klinkner's data, responses to questions such as "Do you think people's ability to improve their financial well-being is now better, worse, or the same as it was 20 years ago?" and "Compared with your parents, do you think it is easier, harder, or neither easier nor harder for you to move up the income ladder?" had little effect on a person's preference for Trump or Clinton.

But, Klinkner found, racial attitudes were highly determinative: Moving from the least to the most resentful view of African Americans increases support for Trump by 44 points, those who think Obama is a Muslim (54 per cent of Republicans) are 24 points more favourable to Trump, and those who think the word "violent" describes Muslims extremely well are 13 points more pro-Trump than those who think it doesn't describe them well at all.

In March, the Washington Post conducted analysis using data from a national poll co-sponsored with ABC News, comparing Trump's support to the other Republican primary candidates. The survey questions were somewhat more personal than the ones in Klinkner's analysis, asking the Republican and Republican-leaning respondents whether they themselves were struggling economically and whether white people's troubles were a direct result of "preferences for blacks and Hispanics". Like Klinkner, Max Ehrenfreund and Scott Clement found that Trump received a plurality of support - 43 per cent - from respondents who expressed racial resentment. But they also found that economic anxiety played a significant role: 40 per cent of respondents who said they were struggling gave their support to Trump, far more than any other candidate.

In Klinkner's analysis, racial attitudes stood completely on their own as powerful drivers of support for Trump.

New data published by the Pew Research Centre last week seems to back up Klinkner's conclusion. "An analysis of 'feeling thermometer' ratings of Trump finds that attitudes about immigration, Islam and racial diversity are strongly associated with Republican voters' views of the presumptive GOP presidential nominee," Pew's researchers write. "Other political values - including opinions about whether the US economic system is unfair and whether business profits are excessive - are less closely linked to feelings about Trump."

- Washington Post

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