New look at 2016 race pins re­sults on iden­tity is­sues

The Washington Post Sunday - - POLITICS & THE NATION - Dan.balz@wash­

Two years af­ter the 2016 elec­tion, there has been no sin­gle an­swer to the ques­tion: What hap­pened? In an out­come that saw the pop­u­lar vote and the elec­toral col­lege di­verge, the­o­ries abound, opin­ions are many and con­sen­sus fleet­ing. Now, a trio of po­lit­i­cal sci­en­tists have come forth with their an­swer as to why Don­ald Trump pre­vailed over Hil­lary Clin­ton, summed up in the ti­tle of their forth­com­ing book: “Iden­tity Cri­sis.”

The co-au­thors are John Sides of Ge­orge Wash­ing­ton Univer­sity, Michael Tesler of the Univer­sity of Cal­i­for­nia at Irvine and Lynn Vavreck of the Univer­sity of Cal­i­for­nia at Los Angeles. They have plumbed and an­a­lyzed a wealth of polling and vot­ing data, ex­am­ined sur­veys of at­ti­tudes taken long be­fore, dur­ing and af­ter the 2016 cam­paign. Their con­clu­sion is straight­for­ward. Is­sues of iden­tity — race, re­li­gion, gen­der and eth­nic­ity — and not eco­nom­ics were the driv­ing forces that de­ter­mined how peo­ple voted, par­tic­u­larly white vot­ers.

In an elec­tion de­cided by fewer than 80,000 votes in Wis­con­sin, Michi­gan and Penn­syl­va­nia, it’s been com­mon for peo­ple to say that any­thing or ev­ery­thing could have made the dif­fer­ence. The three po­lit­i­cal sci­en­tists beg to dif­fer: “‘Ev­ery­thing’ did not ‘mat­ter’ equally,” they ar­gue.

They are be­liev­ers in the fun­da­men­tals of elec­tions — things such as eco­nomic con­di­tions, pres­i­den­tial ap­proval, par­ti­san­ship and the like. Fun­da­men­tals pre­dicted that Clin­ton would win a greater share of the two-party vote, which she did. They dis­miss some the­o­ries about what hap­pened: If 2016 was re­ally about anger and change, why did Clin­ton win the pop­u­lar vote? Clin­ton’s pop­u­lar vote vic­tory, they note, was not in line with “ca­sual pun­ditry about voter anger but was in line with the state of the econ­omy and ap­proval of Barack Obama.”

They ques­tion other the­o­ries: They doubt, for ex­am­ple, that Rus­sian in­ter­fer­ence de­ter­mined the out­come of the elec­tion. The re­lease of hacked emails in July and Oc­to­ber 2016 “did not clearly af­fect” Clin­ton’s fa­vor­able rat­ings nor per­cep­tions of her hon­esty, they write. They also say that, given the bil­lions of tweets and so­cial me­dia post­ings dur­ing the cam­paign, Rus­sian con­tent was prob­a­bly only an in­fin­i­tes­i­mal share of the to­tal. Claims that the Rus­sians turned the elec­tion should be greeted “with some­thing be­tween ag­nos­ti­cism and skep­ti­cism — and prob­a­bly lean­ing to­ward skep­ti­cism,” they say.

But if some things were pre­dictable, based on fun­da­men­tals, other things that hap­pened were not. One was the un­usual pat­tern of shifts among the states be­tween 2012 and 2016. Nor­mally, from elec­tion to elec­tion, states move in the same di­rec­tion, al­beit by dif­fer­ent per­cent­ages. From 2008 to 2012, “al­most ev­ery state shifted in the di­rec­tion of the Repub­li­can can­di­date” due to eco­nomic con­di­tions that were un­fa­vor­able to Obama.

In 2016, Clin­ton should have done a bit worse than Obama across the board. In­stead, in some states — Ari­zona, Cal­i­for­nia, Ge­or­gia, Mas­sachusetts and Texas — she did bet­ter. In oth­ers she did about the same. And in some, Ohio and Iowa among them, she did “sub­stan­tially worse.”

Oddly, she did bet­ter, com­par­a­tively, in red states — such as Ge­or­gia and Texas — than she did in a swing state like Iowa.

The cause for this was a di­vide among white vot­ers, well doc­u­mented dur­ing and since the elec­tion, a divi­sion that saw those with col­lege de­grees mov­ing one way and those with­out col­lege de­grees the other. Sides, Tesler and Vavreck go step by step through the rea­sons for what they call the “diploma di­vide” among white vot­ers.

There were some white sup­port­ers of Obama whose views on race and im­mi­gra­tion were “out of step” with where the Demo­cratic Party stood on those is­sues. The fact that the cam­paign fo­cused on th­ese is­sues — largely due to Trump’s rhetoric and con­sis­tency — vot­ers’ per­cep­tions of where the two can­di­dates stood on iden­tity is­sues was “fur­ther apart . . . than any ma­jor-party pres­i­den­tial can­di­dates in 40 years.” Which, in turn, meant that those is­sues “be­came more strongly re­lated to how they voted in 2016 than in any re­cent pres­i­den­tial elec­tion.”

It’s not that eco­nomic is­sues didn’t mat­ter. But racial at­ti­tudes “shaped the way vot­ers un­der­stood eco­nomic out­comes.” The au­thors de­scribe this as “racial­ized eco­nom­ics” rather than eco­nomic anx­i­ety. “Vot­ers’ at­ti­tudes on racial is­sues ac­counted for the ‘diploma di­vide’ be­tween less and bet­ter ed­u­cated whites,” they write. “Eco­nomic anx­i­ety did not.”

Their con­clu­sion agrees with that of Alan Abramowitz, a po­lit­i­cal sci­en­tist at Emory Univer­sity, who has long stud­ied the rise of po­lar­iza­tion in Amer­i­can pol­i­tics and who fo­cuses on racial re­sent­ment in his re­cent book, “The Great Align­ment: Race, Party Trans­for­ma­tion and the Rise of Don­ald Trump.”

Sides, Tesler and Vavreck reached their con­clu­sion by high­light­ing data that show how iden­tity is­sues be­came more im­por­tant among white vot­ers than in the past. What gives them con­fi­dence in their con­clu­sion is that there were no sim­i­lar signs in how eco­nomic is­sues af­fected white vot­ers. They found “gen­er­ally weak re­la­tion­ships be­tween th­ese mea­sures of eco­nomic anx­i­ety and how peo­ple voted in 2012 or 2016. More­over, th­ese re­la­tion­ships were not con­sis­tently stronger in 2016 than in 2012.”

Their def­i­ni­tion of racial­ized eco­nom­ics is this: “the be­lief that un­de­serv­ing groups are get­ting ahead while your group is left be­hind.” They say Trump played on th­ese con­cerns through­out his cam­paign and has done so as pres­i­dent. They say “racial­ized eco­nom­ics” was more sig­nif­i­cant than eco­nomic anx­i­ety in af­fect­ing how whites with dif­fer­ent lev­els of ed­u­ca­tion voted.

“Th­ese threads tell a straight­for­ward story,” the au­thors write. The cam­paign fo­cused on is­sues of iden­tity more so than in the past. Trump and Clin­ton dif­fered sig­nif­i­cantly on th­ese is­sues, which ac­ti­vated them as im­por­tant fac­tors in shap­ing vot­ing de­ci­sions. Ad­di­tion­ally, there were many Obama vot­ers whose views on th­ese is­sues were “closer to Trump’s than to Obama’s or Clin­ton’s,” and many of them resided in bat­tle­ground states. Their shift gave Trump pri­macy in the elec­toral col­lege even as he was los­ing the pop­u­lar vote.

The po­lar­iza­tion around th­ese is­sues pre­dated Trump, but his cam­paign “mag­ni­fied this po­lar­iza­tion.” Sides, Tesler and Vavreck con­clude the chap­ter on what hap­pened by not­ing that the 2016 elec­tion was dis­tin­guished not only for the fact that Trump pre­vailed in the face of so many pre­dic­tions that he would never be elected pres­i­dent, but also “for how it crys­tal­lized the coun­try’s iden­tity cri­sis: sharp di­vi­sions on what Amer­ica has be­come and what it should be.”

They ar­gue that the cur­rent “iden­tity cri­sis” in Amer­ica can­not eas­ily be un­done, even though pub­lic opin­ion “con­tains reser­voirs of sen­ti­ment that can serve both to unify and di­vide.” The 2016 elec­tion did not pro­duce the di­vi­sions in Amer­ica, but it has em­bed­ded them deeper into the pol­i­tics of the coun­try. Vot­ers and can­di­dates will de­cide in com­ing elec­tions whether to move in a dif­fer­ent di­rec­tion.


Demo­cratic pres­i­den­tial nom­i­nee Hil­lary Clin­ton and Repub­li­can Don­ald Trump meet for a de­bate in 2016. A forth­com­ing book con­cludes is­sues of race, gen­der and eth­nic­ity drove re­sults of that elec­tion.


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