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The Least Analytical 2016 Voters: Democrats Who Supported Trump

New research finds liberals and libertarians are particularly prone to reflective thought.
A man casts his vote at Amherst Street Elementary School on November 8th, 2016, in Nashua, New Hampshire.

A man casts his vote at Amherst Street Elementary School on November 8th, 2016, in Nashua, New Hampshire.

Many analysts are obsessed with a specific slice of the 2016 electorate: Democrats who voted for Donald Trump. This small demographic had outside influence on the final results, and, because of that, political strategists ponder how they might be persuaded to return to their traditional electoral home.

New research suggests detailed PowerPoint presentations are doomed to fail. Ditto richly researched analytical essays.

A study that examined voters' styles of thinking finds that, as expected, Democrats are somewhat more analytically oriented than Republicans. This supports the idea that conservatism is something of a default setting, and rejecting it requires intellectual reasoning.

However, the biggest difference in cognitive approaches was between two subsets of the electorate: Democrats who voted for Trump, and Republicans who refused to do so. The first group scored the lowest of any on reflective thinking; the latter group scored the highest.

"Trump, and the campaign that he ran, may have been particularly attractive for relatively intuitive individuals, and repellent for relatively analytical individuals," write psychologists Gordon Pennycook of the University of Regina and David Rand of Yale University. Their study is published in the Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin.

The researchers analyzed data from 19 online studies featuring a total of 15,001 Americans. All were conducted between December of 2016 and November of 2017. Participants indicated their political affiliation, ideology, and who (if anyone) they voted for in the 2016 presidential election.

In addition, all participants completed the Cognitive Reflection Test, in which they attempt to solve seven problems. Each has an obvious but wrong intuitive answer; correct responses therefore indicate a person utilizes analytical thinking.

One example: "If you're running a race and you pass the person who is in second place, what place are you in?" The intuitive answer is "first"; the correct answer is "second."

The researchers then compared thinking styles with self-described political leanings and voting patterns. They found "an overall negative correlation between the propensity to think analytically and conservative political ideology."

Scores on the cognitive reflection test were higher among Hillary Clinton voters than Trump voters, and higher among Democrats than Republicans. They were particularly low among strong social conservatives (but not their economic-conservative counterparts).

However, a subgroup of conservatives proved to be highly analytical.

"Libertarians and individuals who voted for third-party candidates tended to score higher on the cognitive reflection test than other groups," the researchers report. This makes sense, in that "given being a Democrat or Republican is more often a default position, and eschewing those presumably relies on analytic thinking."

In addition, Pennycook and Rand found people who did not vote scored lower than people who did. This suggests analytic thinking "facilitates interest and engagement in political issues."

That said, the results suggest Trump connected with many non-analytical Americans, and motivated them to vote—in many cases, for the first time in a while. "Perhaps our most striking finding," the researchers write, is "the particularly low scores (on the analytic-thinking test) among Democrats who voted for Trump. This may be because one of the most salient features of Trump himself was his reliance on intuition and impulse, along with an informal communication style."

They also point out that many of Trump's policy proposals had an "intuitively or emotionally compelling appeal, as opposed to being built around detail and careful analysis." A brick wall across the entire United States-Mexican border may be an absurd idea, they note, but it evokes "compelling mental imagery."

So Democrats who voted for Trump are not going to be won back by intellectual arguments. A more fruitful strategy might be for the party to nominate a candidate who reflects the cognitive style of its members—and a slogan that cements this shared bond.

Democrats might consider a new slogan for 2020: Make America Ruminate Again.