Last month, four studies were published by the Voter Study Group that, taken together, provide a serious challenge to some of the most common—and perhaps cherished—beliefs of what went down during the 2016 presidential election. (One might be tempted to write that they “destroyed,” or “blew up” the conventional wisdom, but that would be overstating it.)
The studies used a unique database that offers some advantages over previous efforts to determine what motivated voters last year. Rather than surveying random samples of, say, 1,000 voters at various points in the race, the Voter Study Group researchers, in conjunction with the polling firm YouGov, repeatedly surveyed the same panel of 8,000 voters before and after the 2012 election, and then again before and after the 2016 election. This allowed them to see how individual voter’s preferences changed over time.
Ruy Teixeira and Robert Griffin, co-authors of one of the papers which looked at Trump’s “appeal” to his supporters, explained why this approach offers a real advantage over individual polls or analyses of registration data. “As counterintuitive as it may seem,” they write, “there is a substantial amount of evidence that voters shift their opinions to more closely match those of their preferred candidate.”
So, suppose that we find a relationship between support for Trump and a given attitude in a typical survey. We have to ask ourselves: Does this person support Trump because they had this attitude or does this person have this attitude because they support Trump? As a specific example, did Trump tap into latent racial and cultural resentments or did voters adopt some of his positions once they had decided to support him?
The most vivid example of this phenomenon may have been the dramatic increase in support for Russia, Vladimir Putin, and WikiLeaks among Republicans over the course of Trump’s campaign. That was a rather clear effect of Trump’s rhetoric on the stump.
Similarly, polls conducted during the campaign found that there were significant differences on the issue of trade between Trump’s primary voters and those who backed other Republican candidates, and then between Trump and Hillary Clinton supporters in the general election. By the end of the campaign, a Pew survey found that Trump voters were twice as likely as Clinton voters to say that “free trade agreements have been a bad thing for the US,” and “free trade agreements have definitely/ probably hurt your family.” This led to dozens of stories from areas hit hard by offshoring, and a lot of analysis about how the politics of trade were reshaping the race, and perhaps the two major parties’ coalitions.