I conducted three analyses and found that:
- There were a surprisingly large number of Obama/Trump voters, and with some exceptions they matched the media portrait – white, working class, low income, older, and Midwestern.
- These voters probably chose Trump based on racially loaded policy issues; in particular, “law and order” issues related to fear of criminal violence.
- These voters held economically populist views on a number of issues, even if those views did not drive their votes in the 2016 election. However, their economic views on most issues were at least slightly to the right of the views of Obama/Clinton voters.
The debate among Democrats and liberal-leaning media outlets, as summarized in the Washington Post:
“If white, working-class Trump supporters were motivated by economic anxiety, then the party could make inroads with an economic agenda that appeals to them. On the other hand, if it were a question of race and culture, those voters would be extremely unlikely to join Democrats’ progressive, multiracial coalition.”
This dichotomy is probably false. There is no reason why Obama/Trump voters, who seem to have been motivated by ethnocentric and prejudicial views in 2016, might not prioritize other issues in another election. Everyone one of these people voted at least once for a black, liberal president – they joined the Democrats’ multiracial coalition and then left it – and if the Democrats could win back even half of these voters, that would be enough to retake the White House.
Recall, from an earlier news cycle: “We’re voting for the nigger.” Not every prejudiced, white voter is a white supremacist; ethnocentrism and bias are common among working class voters in all countries and of all races, and so long as the Democrats are bidding for power in a democracy (especially one where the current districts magnify the power of the white, working class vote), they will probably have to find a set of issues that appeals to these voters despite their flaws.
- There’s no reason to think that Democrats could appeal to these voters by “moving left” on economic issues – on almost every issue, these voters hold beliefs that are at least slightly more conservative than those of most Democrats.
- On the other hand, if Democrats could somehow “change the conversation” to focus on economic issues, then perhaps they could win back these voters.
- Maybe different campaign ads would have been enough to “change the conversation” – after all, Clinton ran an unusual campaign.
- On the other hand, maybe “changing the conversation” is harder, because the conversation depends a lot on what your own supporters care about. For example, Google Trends seems to show that the media have come to care more about racism relative to poverty in recent years. It’s not clear whether it’s possible or desirable to reverse that trend.