by Matthew Sheffield · May 5, 2017
Last November, millions of people cast a presidential ballot for Republican Donald Trump after having voted for his Democratic predecessor, Barack Obama. According to one poll, nearly 20 percent of people who voted for Trump said they approved of the job that Obama was doing at the time.
Given how completely different Trump and Obama are in terms of personality and policy, political scientists have been at work trying to figure out what was going through the heads of these former Democratic voters. Lots of interesting research has been pushed out and more continues to be distributed almost every week.
Washington Post writer Aaron Blake dug through some focus group interviews that Republican pollster Glen Bolger conducted with Trump-Obama voters in Michigan and Wisconsin last month and found some interesting quotations. Many of the people interviewed appear to have made their choices almost purely based on personal appeal rather than on the politicians’ stated issue positions.
Several of the people had very negative things to say about their pick, Donald Trump. One of the Wisconsin women appears to have thought Trump was prone to make racist statements but she still voted for him because he was an underdog:
“They made Trump, I think, — I, well, I shouldn’t say it was the media’s fault, it was pretty much his mouth’s fault — but he made himself look like a very mean, cruel person that just was very racist. And I thought he would, everyone was going to vote for Hillary because of that.”
Another Wisconsinite, this time a man, appeared to think that because Trump lies so frequently and poorly, this somehow was a reason to vote for him:
“I think they all lie, but Trump was more — is more obvious,” he was quoted as saying.
One of the women from Wisconsin seemed to imply that she had primarily voted for Obama because he is half-black and him becoming president would make “colored people” feel better about life:
“I voted for Obama too, because, I mean, there’s always been a white person, obviously, in office. I mean, he was of African descent, so I voted for him thinking I would change a little bit of the race issues that we had going on and make the colored people feel better, like they have a black person in office.”
While focus groups are interesting, however, they are of only limited use since they are essentially anecdotes. Luckily, some new data has emerged on the topic as well.
A new poll commissioned by the super PAC Priorities USA of 800 people who had voted for Obama in 2012 but chose Trump in 2016 or decided not to vote at all also supports this thesis. This latter group of people were termed “drop-off voters” in the report. (The Washington Post’s Greg Sargent provided the full PDF of the research.)
According to the study, 30 percent of respondents said that their backing of Trump was more of a vote against his Democratic opponent, Hillary Clinton, than it was about affirmatively choosing him.
The drop-off voters have a strongly negative view toward the Republican Party and Trump. Ninety-two percent of them said they believed that Trump’s economic policies would favor wealthy Americans. Ninety percent said the same about the congressional GOP.
The switching voters answered those questions very differently, however. They also view Trump as a different type of Republican.
Just 21 percent of Obama-Trump respondents said they believed the president’s economic policies would benefit the wealthy. More than three-quarters — 77 percent — said that Trump would work for all groups equally or favor the middle class.
By contrast, 40 percent of Obama-Trump voters said that congressional Republicans would favor the wealthy. Forty-two percent of respondents said that the Democrats in congress would do the same.
Given Trump’s repeated promises to not cut Medicare and Social Security and his pledges to create a health care system that would “take care of everyone,” it’s not exactly a surprise that at least some people took him at his word.
But lifestyle issues also appear to have played a role in the Trump victory as well. At the very least, they appear to have some correlation. Due to the way that Democratic voters are highly concentrated in just a few urban areas, this means that the party is more vulnerable in less-populated regions which have become more culturally conservative over time.
New research from political scientists Ron Lesthaeghe and Lisa Neidert of the University of Michigan indicates that there is an extremely strong correlation between attitudes toward family life and voting patterns. Beginning with the 1996 presidential campaign of Democrat Bill Clinton and Republican Bob Dole, people with more conservative stances on motherhood, abortion, and same-sex marriage have strongly gravitated toward the GOP.
Summarizing the Lesthaeghe and Neidert study and some related research, the New York Times’ Thomas B. Edsall notes that even as Trump has been reneging on some of his progressive promises, his support has remained strong due to his pugnacious attitude against educated urbanites who rural and small-city Americans have grown to hate:
“Trump’s basic approach — speaking the unspeakable — is expressive, not substantive. His inflammatory, aggressive language captures and channels the grievances of red America, but the specific grievances often feel less important than the primordial, mocking incivility with which they are expressed. In this way, Trump does not necessarily need to deliver concrete goods because he is saying with electric intensity what his supporters have long wanted to say themselves.”
The Priorities USA report tells Democrats that the way to win back Obama-Trump voters is to tie the president to his party. Over time, this is likely to work. But in the short term, some of the attitudinal changes recommended by the Atlantic’s Conor Friedersdorf might also prove useful as well.