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A New Study Confirms (Again) That Race, Not Economics, Drove Former Democrats to Trump

Research on Iowa counties that swung from Obama to Trump indicates that GOP success was driven far more by sexism and racism than by economic anxiety.
Supporters cheer as then-Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump arrives for a rally at the Sioux City Convention Center in Sioux City, Iowa, on November 6th, 2016.

Supporters cheer as then-Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump arrives for a rally at the Sioux City Convention Center in Sioux City, Iowa, on November 6th, 2016.

Some disproven theories simply refuse to die. Among them is the notion that President Donald Trump's 2016 victory was largely due to economic anxiety on the part of blue-collar whites.

Democratic presidential hopeful Pete Buttigieg has made that argument repeatedly of late, citing "the failure of this enormous American prosperity to reach so many people in so many communities," and Trump's promises of radical change, as the reasons for the president's upset win.

But a major study published a year ago found that Trump's support among non-college-educated whites—arguably the key to his Electoral College success—was driven far more by sexism and racism than by economic anxiety.

Now, a new study that focuses on one key constituency—white people in Iowa who voted for Barack Obama, and later for Trump—comes to that same conclusion.

"Economic distress is not a significant factor in explaining the shift in Iowa voters from Democrat to Republican between 2008 and 2016," write Iowa State University sociologists Ann Oberhauser, Daniel Krier, and Abdi Kusow. "The election outcomes do not signify [a revolt] among working-class voters left behind by globalization."

Rather, in 2016, "the nativist narrative about 'taking back America' and anti-immigrant sentiment became stronger forces than economic issues," Oberhauser said in announcing the findings.

The study, published in the journal Sociological Quarterly, begins by noting that 31 Iowa counties flipped from Democrat to Republican between 2008 and 2016—more counties than in any other state. For each county, researchers calculated the percentage of difference between the vote for the Republican ticket of John McCain/Sarah Palin and that for Trump/Mike Pence eight years later.

The researchers noted the "level of rurality" for each county, a metric that the federal Department of Agriculture calculates using the size of a given county's population and its proximity to an urban area. They also looked at several important economic statistics, including median household income and the percentage of adults who were unemployed.

Finally, they analyzed four variables grouped together as "social identities": the percentage of people who (a.) were over 65, (b.) had no college degree, (c.) identified as non-Hispanic whites, and (d.) were affiliated with a religion.

"In general, the counties that swung the most [from Obama to Trump] were those that were almost entirely white," the researchers report. Rural counties were more likely to have shifted Republican than urban counties, as were counties in which fewer people had college educations.

In contrast, "median county income, adults not working, and county employment [rates]" were not predictive of a shift in political affiliation. Nor, surprisingly, was religiosity: The researchers argue that their findings suggest whiteness "plays a greater role in explaining Trump's support among white evangelicals than religion."

So the less educated you were, and the less likely you were to actually know any people of color, the more susceptible you were to Trump's fear-mongering. This suggests that these rural voters were voting to uphold "certain racialized and gendered norms," the researchers argue.

Krier and his colleagues note that Democrats did well in the 2018 mid-terms in Iowa, picking up two congressional seats. But "prominent ethno-nationalist" Representative Steve King won re-election in his largely rural district, Krier reminds us, suggesting that the "social and geographic gulfs" between rural and urban areas are continuing to widen.

All this is not to say that liberals should ignore any county that contains a barn. Indeed, Eric Levitz recently argued in New York magazine that appeals like Buttigieg's (Bernie Sanders has offered similar statements) make some strategic sense. They certainly represent a better strategy than dismissing a substantial proportion of the electorate as "deplorables."

But Democrats need to be clear-eyed about what actually drove voters' decisions, and to recognize that Trump—and other Republican candidates willing to play to voters' prejudices—will likely hold onto those voters' allegiance. Status anxiety, especially when it's tied to one's racial identity, is a highly resonant appeal, in good economic times and bad.

"At the gut level, people react to identities and protect those identities more than their livelihoods," co-author Kusow concludes. And for many Americans, as political scientist Ashley Jardina has eloquently argued, that means their identities as white people.