President still insists on issues, but voters are less racist and less influenced by sexism than in 2016
16 Sep 2020
Some might have thought that as President Donald Trump would abandon the racially divisive campaign strategy he adopted in 2016. In fact, he pursued it even more tenaciously. In July, Mr. Trump called Black Lives Matter a symbol of hate. Days later, speaking at Mount Rushmore, he described the efforts to remove Confederate monuments in the south, seen by many as symbols of white supremacy as a ruthless campaign to destroy our history. After police shot Jacob Blake, an unarmed black man, sparked protests and riots in Kenosha, Wisconsin, Mr. Trump warned that if he was not re-elected, the suburbs of the Americas would be invaded by looters and social housing projects (and, by implication, the people who live there).
Similar rhetoric has helped Mr. Trump win over less educated white voters in the past. According to an analysis by The Economist of survey data from the University of California at Los Angeles and the Democracy Fund, a charity, this group tends to be less tolerant of minorities (they are less likely to recognize the influence of slavery and discrimination on the fortunes of black families, for example). Such attitudes are highly predictive of voting behavior. We estimate that among voters who ranked in the 25th highest percentile on questions about racial groups, social scientists might characterize as racist resentment 89% voted for Mr. Trump in 2016. Among voters in the bottom quarter, only 5% voted for the Republican candidate.
But Mr. Trump has lost ground with the demographic long considered the most racist. According to the survey, dubbed Nationscape, which polled more than 300,000 voters between July 2019 and July 2020, the voting margin of presidents among whites without a college degree has halved since 2016, from 27 percentage points to just 13. This raises an uncomfortable question. for the outgoing president: given his current strategy of exploiting the racial divide, how can he lose the support of his most racist constituents?
There are at least two possible explanations. First, according to the Nationscape survey, Americans have become significantly less resentful over the past year (the average racial attitude scores, calculated by The Economist, fell from 0.45 to 0.41, on a scale from 0 to 1). Data from the Pew Research Center, a think tank, shows a similar downward trend in white racial animosity since 2016. This may have weakened one of Mr. Trumps’ main selling points. Indeed, data from the Nationscape survey shows that the relationship between the degree of racial resentment and support for Mr. Trump has changed little since 2016; if anything, he got stronger. But as the number of very irritated people fell, the share of the presidents’ vote also fell.
Sexism offers another clue. The Nationscape poll also asked respondents about their views on women, for example whether women can think as logically as men. These responses were also predictive of support for Mr. Trump in 2016, when he ran against Hillary Clinton. Data shows that 71% of people in the top quarter on our measure of sexism voted for Mr. Trump, compared to just 25% of those in the bottom quarter. Sexism seems to play less of a role this time around. Mr. Trump’s support among the most sexist voters has fallen by four percentage points, while his support among the less sexist has not changed.
Mr. Trump has a daunting task ahead of him. The Nationscape survey suggests that while racial attitudes remain prominent for many Americans, there are nonetheless fewer racist voters this year than in 2016, swaying both waking voters and non-college whites. A strategy based on nurturing this group, rather than calling on the moderates in the center, can be difficult. Meanwhile, Joe Biden, Mr Trumps’ Democratic opponent, managed to build his support among more sexist voters who were reluctant to vote for Hillary Clinton.
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