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More Evidence That Racism and Sexism Were Key to Trump's Victory

A new analysis finds attitudes about gender and race were far better predictors of support for Trump than personal economic woes.
President Donald Trump applauds the crowd of supporters at the Phoenix Convention Center as he takes the stage during a rally on August 22nd, 2017, in Phoenix, Arizona.

President Donald Trump applauds the crowd of supporters at the Phoenix Convention Center as he takes the stage during a rally on August 22nd, 2017, in Phoenix, Arizona.

To the dismay of many, President Donald Trump has amped up his racist rhetoric of late, sending out angry, misleading tweets about Latin-American immigrants. Tufts University scholar Daniel Drezner argues this is his attempt "to ensure that his loyal base supporters are sufficiently energized to come out and vote GOP in the midterms."

Drezner doubts this will work. But a new scholarly analysis suggests Trump's instinct that racial prejudice drove him to victory is spot on.

"The 2016 campaign witnessed a dramatic polarization in the vote choices of whites based on (their level of) education," writes a research team led by political scientist Brian Schaffner of the University of Massachusetts–Amherst. "Very little of this gap can be explained by the economic difficulties faced by less-educated whites. Rather, most of the divide appears to be associated with sexism, and denialism of racism."

In the journal Political Science Quarterly, Schaffner and his colleagues note that a significant split between the preferences of highly educated and less-educated white voters is a relatively new phenomenon.

"In 2000, a small but notable gap began to emerge, with non-college-educated whites providing more support for the Republican presidential nominee," they write. "This gap remained relatively small, ranging from five to seven points in the elections held from 2000 to 2012."

"In 2016, however, the gap in vote preferences between college-educated and non-college-educated whites widened considerably to 18 points," they add. "College-educated whites were more supportive of [Hillary] Clinton than they had been of [Barack] Obama in 2012, while whites without a college degree moved even more dramatically toward Trump."

Why this occurred has been debated ever since, with one side emphasizing these voters' economic woes, and the other focusing on their fears of a changing society. To try to determine which was more important, the researchers looked at data from two large, nationally representative surveys administered online by YouGov: a pre-election poll of 2,000 American adults taken in late October of 2016, and a survey of 2,830 who were interviewed just before and just after the vote.

Schaffner and his colleagues focused on their responses to seven statements that reflect their attitudes about race and gender. Participants indicated their level of agreement or disagreement with each.

They included "Women are too easily offended;" "Women seek to gain power by getting control over men;" "White people in the U.S. have certain advantages because of the color of their skin;" and "Racial problems in the US. are rare, isolated situations."

In addition, participants indicated which presidential candidate they planned to vote for (or, in the follow-up survey, voted for), and answered one of two questions about their personal finances. Those in the first survey were directly asked "How satisfied are you with your overall economic situation?", while those in the second indicated whether their household income had increased, decreased, or stayed about the same over the past four years.

"While the economic variables in our models were significantly associated with vote choice, those effects were dwarfed by the relationship between hostile sexism and denial of racism and voting for Trump," the researchers report. "Moving from one end of the sexism scale to the other was associated with more than a 30-point increase in support for Trump among the average likely voter. The relationship for the denial-of-racism scale was nearly identical. Moving from the highest levels of acknowledgement and empathy for racism to the lowest level was associated with about a 30-point increase in support for Trump."

These findings held true even after the researchers took into account two additional factors that have been linked to Trump support: populism (determined by responses to statements such as "The system is stacked against people like me") and authoritarianism (as measured by attitudes about child-rearing).

"If non-college-educated whites became somewhat more progressive in their attitudes toward racism and sexism, so that they matched those of college-educated whites," the researchers conclude, "Clinton would have won the popular vote by four points instead of two points. Such a shift could have had a dramatic effect in terms of the Electoral College outcome."

Given Trump's (admittedly narrow) victory, the researchers argue it will be tempting for future GOP candidates to use the same divisive playbook.

"If Republicans see little prospect of winning over racial or ethnic minorities in the near future, they have two choices: Moderate their appeals in order to restore their advantage over more educated white voters, or repeat the Trump strategy to maximize their support among less-educated whites," they write.

"As the norms governing political rhetoric appear to have largely been shattered in 2016, the latter strategy is at least as plausible as the former," they add. "That may have significant consequences for the stability of American democracy."

So the portrait of working-class Trump supporters seen on the popular reboot of Roseanne—economically strapped, fearful about their future, but surprisingly tolerant—appears to be something of a fantasy.

Sure, a lack of well-paying working-class jobs drove support for Trump. But resentment over the changing racial make-up of the nation, and unease with the shifting role of women, played a much bigger role in his victory.

The 1990s feminist Roseanne would have understood that.