Yves here. The Institute for New Economic Thinking has published an important new paper by Thomas Ferguson, Benjamin Page, Jacob E. Rothschild, Arturo Chang, and Jie Chen on the 2016 Presidential election, seeking to understand why Trump won. The authors performed analyses on different data sources, such as surveys on voter attitudes, and the composition of districts that had a higher Trump share in 2016 than Romney got in 2012. It also has a section discussion the various political stances that the much-abused term “populism” is taken to mean, as well as a detailed discussion of what Trump said while campaigning, and where his position was consistent, versus the ones where he sent multiple messages.
Sadly, I have had time only to skim the paper, but it has lots of juicy material. For instance, a survey included a section of open-ended questions on why voters liked and disliked each party and candidate. From the paper:
Where Clinton is concerned, one issue stands out: Corruption. Fully 18% of all respondents offering any comment on Clinton (comprising 10% of the total respondent pool) mentioned this concept. Here the disjunction between explicit term and broader concept is much narrower than usual: many respondents directly employed the term itself. In a nationwide survey of diverse, disconnected respondents, we consider this 18% figure to be stunning.
The heavy weight of the official mind on this topic appears to have percolated down to many voters. When we checked for consistency between open-ended responses and responses to canned, closed ended questions about whether or not more trade is good, or whether reciprocal trade treaties make sense, we found that many who spontaneously expressed qualms in response to the open-ended questions nonetheless voiced agreement with the generalized pro-trade sentiments embodied in closed questions. Only the direct question about limiting imports (a substantial predictor of voting choices) tended to draw consistent responses, though that, too, only partly mirrors the skepticism voiced in the open ended questions.
Our conclusion is that these divergently expressed sentiments reflect real ambivalence in voter stances and raise some problematic methodological questions. We suspect that many voters (like, occasionally, Trump himself) profess to believe in free trade when it is also “fair trade,” or consider “free trade” in the abstract to signify a Good Thing.
Mind you, the study findings rely heavily the data findings, but the authors are very much aware of its limits. And personally, I have always found less structured and open-ended surveys to be extremely informative, even if it’s harder to draw firms conclusions from information that often winds up being disparate.
To the write-up at INET:
By Thomas Ferguson, Director of Research, Professor Emeritus, University of Massachusetts, Boston; Benjamin Page, Professor, Northwestern University; Jacob E. Rothschild, PhD Candidate, Northwestern University; Arturo Chang, Ph.D. Student – Political Theory, Northwestern University; and Jie Chen, University Statistician, University of Massachusetts. Originally published at the Institute for New Economic Thinking website<
Donald Trump’s election in 2016 as president of the United States can be taken as a striking example of the rise of right-wing populism around the world.
Scholars and others have debated what the roots of that populism are among mass publics. For example, did voters in the United States respond chiefly to social anxieties—racism, xenophobia, sexism? Or mainly to economic distress—lost jobs, stagnant wages, home foreclosures, health care crises, student loan debt, and the like?
Most analysts have concluded that social anxieties overwhelmingly predominated. They argue that the story is simple: Trump was elected by “deplorables,” fueled by racial resentment, sexism, and fear or dislike of immigrants from abroad. Economics, they say, made little or no difference. This story has been repeated so often in many parts of the mass media that it has hardened into a kind of “common sense” narrative.
Our new paper shows that this view is mistaken. The picture is considerably more complicated. Social anxieties certainly did play an important part in Trump’s victories—particularly in the 2016 Republican primaries, where many voters were indeed motivated by resentments related to race, ethnicity, immigration, and gender. Social issues were important in the general election as well. But upon careful examination of several types of data, the real picture looks considerably more complicated.
Economic factors mattered at both stages. Moreover, in the general election—in contrast to the primaries—leading social factors actually tended to hurt rather than help Trump. While agreeing that racial resentment and sexism were important influences, the paper shows how various economic considerations—including concerns about imports and job losses, wealth inequality, social welfare programs, and starved infrastructure—helped Trump win the Republican primary and then led significant blocs of voters to shift from supporting Democrats or abstaining in 2012 to voting for him. It also presents striking evidence of the importance of political money and senators’ “reverse coattails” in the dramatic final result.WP_83-Ferguson-et-al