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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

How Much of Trump’s Popularity is Powered by Racial Resentment?

In his NYT column, “The Unsettling Truth About Trump’s First Great Victory,” Thomas B. Edsall discusses books and studies showing the role of racial attitudes in the current Republican front-runner’s 2016 upset victory in the presidential election. Edsall quotes several high-quality surveys addressing aspects of white Americans’ attitudes toward African Americans and white identity/victimhood and how they affected voting behavior in that year, compared to other years.

Edsall leans into a study by Stanford researchers Justin Grimmer and Cole Tanigawa-Lau and William Marble of the University of Pennsylvania, which found that much of Trump’s support came form voters who harbor only ‘moderate’ racial resentments. That is significant because of the widespread, but apparently mistaken assumption that most of his support comes from those who harbor more virulent racial animosities. The underlying idea is that ‘moderate’ racial resentments can be changed through interracial contact and education.

All of the studies Edsall references look pretty solid. But the quote Edsall provides which makes the most sense to me came from Daniel Hopkins, a political scientist at the University of Pennsylvania, who wrote in an email:

The 2016 presidential election included ballots cast by more than 128 million Americans, and so any one narrative used to explain that election will be partial and incomplete. So I think it’s critical to avoid the idea that there is a single skeleton key that can explain all the varied undercurrents that led to Trump’s 2016 victory, or that any one paper will provide a definitive explanation….

My guess is that the percentage of voters who cast ballots for Trump solely, or even mostly, because of their racial resentments was likely pretty small. I would like to see a survey that ranks 2016 voting reasons, which also includes such variables as dislike for white liberals or Hillary Clinton, peer and family leanings and preference for an ‘outsider’ candidate. There are very few ‘single issue voters,’ and there is not much that can be done to sway them in a different direction anyway.

The reason 2016 is not old news is that Trump is still around, mining many of the same themes. But no matter what happens in the 2024 presidential election, it will be impossible to isolate the role of racial attitudes in the popular vote in light of Trump’s complex legal problems, his bizarre presidency and his role in the January 6 riot, as well as the usual complex of issues.

In his conclusion, Edsall writes,

In fact, the new analysis suggests that Trumpism has found fertile ground across a broad swath of the electorate, including many firmly in the mainstream. That Trump could capture the hearts and minds of these voters suggests that whatever he represents beyond racial resentment — anger, chaos, nihilism, hostility — is more powerful than many recognize or acknowledge. Restoring American politics to an even keel will be far tougher than many of us realize.

Of course it is always worth noting that in 2016 Hillary Clinton got about 2 million, 868 thousand more popular votes than Trump nationwide, although her popular vote margin in California alone was about 4 million, 270 thousand. Most analyses that address Trump’s 2016 upset are mostly about his non-California vote totals. But California stubbornly remains part of the U.S.

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