Was Donald Trump elected because of racism or economic anxiety? Few questions about the 2016 election have generated more analysis. As we’ve previously written, it is clear racism propelled Trump to the Republican nomination. But how did the racial resentment that powered Trump’s ascent differ from the support for Republican candidates in prior elections? And what was the relative importance of economic peril to voting in 2016 compared to several different types of racism and racial animus exhibited by voters?
The answers can be found in the comprehensive American National Election Studies pre- and post-election survey of over 4,000 respondents, which we analyzed to explore the impact of racism and economic peril on 2016 voting behavior. The results are clear, and move a long way towards settling this debate.
Our analysis shows Trump accelerated a realignment in the electorate around racism, across several different measures of racial animus—and that it helped him win. By contrast, we found little evidence to suggest individual economic distress benefited Trump. The American political system is sorting so that racial progressivism and economic progressivism are aligned in the Democratic Party and racial conservatism and economic conservatism are aligned in the Republican Party.
How We Performed The Analysis
In order to get at how various dimensions and aspects of racial animus and xenophobia impacted voting in 2016, we created three different indexes using questions from the newly released ANES 2016 Time Series Survey. First, we created a racial resentment scale, based on a series of four questions developed by Lynn Sanders and Donald Kinder. Racial resentment measures dog-whistle or color-blind forms of racism, such as the belief that black people need to simply “try harder” to be successful in America, or that generations of discrimination do not hold back black Americans. However, some have criticized the concept of racial resentment and the various questions designed to measure it as essentially equating conservative beliefs and “race-neutral” principles with racism and racial animus. We believe that such concerns are exaggerated and that racial resentment captures an important dimension of racial animus in American politics.
Nonetheless, in order to speak to such concerns, we created a second measure we call “black influence animosity” derived from questions that more directly examine voters’ views about whether the US government favors black people over white people and how much influence black people have in US politics.
Third, we created a scale based on views about immigration—such as whether one believes immigrants are more likely to commit crimes and take away jobs. We created a stereotyping scale which measures views like believing people of color are more violent or lazier than whites, but it was not included in our final models because it did not predict voting behavior.