It’s no secret that American voters are divided. But how deep do the divisions run, and can they be healed?
People of goodwill on both sides, troubled by the embittered 2016 election and its sour aftermath, hope the rift is shallow. But goodwill is scarce, and hope often drifts into wishful thinking.
Much of the discourse about today’s polarization is essentially guesswork. Polls offer snapshots, and interviews — in diners, in focus groups, on the street — offer food for thought. But more is needed to understand the depth and dynamic of partisan tensions. That’s why, with Eric Hanley, I turned to the 2016 American National Election Study.
The election study has long been the gold standard of voting research. Every election, hundreds of questions are posed to thousands of voters, giving us the chance to weigh the relative influence of many factors.
What mattered most for Donald Trump’s election? Many pundits say that class and economic worry were the main factors — that “the white working class,” alarmed by job loss, was driven by pocketbook woes to vote against the status quo. Many liberals find solace in that thought. If appreciable numbers of white workers voted for Trump only to shake things up, they might still return to the liberal fold. If they winced when they pulled the lever for the bellicose candidate, they might be further alienated by his aggressive rhetoric as president.
Our findings suggest otherwise. Trump voters supported him in 2016 not despite his fiery and divisive attitudes but because of them. That was true for voters who called themselves his “strong” supporters — nearly three quarters of the total — and also for his milder supporters. However enthusiastic they were about Trump, his supporters were aligned on all decisive issues — and far removed from other voters.
Trump partisans, unlike the electorate, are relatively undivided. What they share, what separates them from other voters, is their stance on hot-button issues.
What’s hot, and what’s not?
Not hot: Pocketbook issues, since Trump voters didn’t differ from other voters in their personal financial concerns. Also insignificant were strength of religious feeling, complaints about reverse discrimination and attitudes toward children.
Hot: Besides measures of conservatism and Republicanism — which always have strong effects — the hottest items were attitudes toward women, minorities, immigrants and leaders. Trump voters differed sharply from others in their strong support for statements such as the following:
▪ If blacks would only try harder, they could be just as well off as whites.
▪ When women demand equality, they are actually often seeking special favors.
▪ Immigrants who were brought to the U.S. illegally as children and have lived here for 10 years or longer and graduated from U.S. high schools should be sent back where they came from.
Also telling are two timely items. In 2016, Trump voters strongly endorsed these statements:
▪ What our country really needs is a strong, determined leader who will crush evil and take us back to our true path.
▪ Our country will be great if we honor the ways of our forefathers, do what the authorities tell us to do, and get rid of the “rotten apples” who are ruining everything.
Support for these items was not simply a wish for strong leadership, since voters generally agreed that Clinton was likelier to provide strong leadership than Trump. But Trump voters believed that only he would “crush evil” — and that Clinton was evil.
That sentiment should not be underestimated. Many liberals, appalled by what they see as Trump’s moral lapses, have been waiting for him to “go too far.” They’ve hoped that he would cross a red line, driving some milder followers back to moderation; and they voice pained surprise when the expected exodus doesn’t take place. Our data suggest that, as long as Trump remains Trump, that exodus in unlikely. His followers, even his mild followers, want exactly what he delivers.
David Smith and Eric Hanley are University of Kansas sociologists and the authors of “The Anger Games.”