Why Did Some Obama Voters Switch to Trump?

Via Zack Beauchamp, we have a new study about what motivated certain Obama voters to switch to Trump in 2016. Long story short, economic anxiety played almost no role. Rather, it was conservative racial attitudes, primarily among working-class whites:

The data source for this chart is white voters who voted for Obama in 2008 or 2012. Each point shows the effect of moving from the most liberal racial attitude toward the most conservative racial attititudes. In all cases, but especially for working-class whites, the effect is a nonzero likelihood of switching to Trump in 2016. There was no similar effect for economic anxiety.

This shouldn’t surprise anyone by this point. There’s now been a boatload of research showing that economic anxiety had little effect on the 2016 vote for Trump. To the extent that he did better than a generic Republican candidate, it was because he appealed more strongly to racial anxiety.

Now, there’s a limit to how much you can conclude from a single study, but what makes this one interesting is that it’s limited to voters who initially voted for Obama. In other words, these obviously aren’t hardcore racists: regardless of their racial attitudes, they were perfectly willing to vote for a black man in 2008 and 2012.

So what happened in 2016? One possibility, of course, is that they were willing to vote for a black man but not for a woman, regardless of race. That’s possible, but I think there’s a more likely explanation: they were willing to vote for a black man initially, but after eight years of racial triggering—partly due to the simple presence of Obama in the White House, partly due to relentlessly racial coverage of Obama from conservative media, and partly due to outside events like Ferguson and Black Lives Matter—they had gotten tired of being constantly reminded of race. They didn’t turn into overt racists, but they were open to voting for a white man with a more aggressive racial appeal than they were used to. So the pendulum swung, and a fair number of these folks with nominally centrist racial attitudes pulled the lever for Trump.

The big question is whether this is a permanent change. Did these switchers switch for a single election? Or did they become permanent Republicans as they watched the Democratic Party become more and more associated with people of color? Based on both this study and other evidence, I suspect the switch is temporary.¹

This is why I think Democrats don’t need to be shy about running on cultural and racial issues. This isn’t meant as carte blanche to campaign like Malcolm X even if you’re running in a rural Midwestern district. I mean, don’t be an idiot. At the same time, the racial anxiety set off by Obama’s presidency is almost certainly wearing off, while Trump’s white-guy-in-a-bar act is wearing thin. On issues of immigration, racial justice, sexual abuse, and so forth, a simple, straightforwardly progressive approach will work fine. There’s no need for shilly shallying just because Trump manages to gather a few thousand blowhards into a stadium once in a while.

¹There is, of course, also an underlying, long-term trend of conservative whites moving to the Republican Party, but that’s been happening slowly and steadily for nearly 50 years. I think it’s unlikely that the tail end of that process would show substantial changes in voting behavior over the course of just a couple of elections.


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