Status, Not Economic Hardship, Drove Voters in 2016

New evidence published in April in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences supports the idea that many Trump voters are feeling left behind, but not for reasons related to personal financial problems or economic anxiety about the future.

Based on survey data from a nationally representative panel of the same 1,200 American voters polled in both 2012 and 2016, Penn professor Diana C. Mutz found that traditionally high-status Americans, namely whites, feel their status in America and the world is threatened by America’s growing racial diversity and a perceived loss of U.S. global dominance. Under threat by these engines of change, America’s socially dominant groups increased their support in 2016 for the candidate who most emphasized reestablishing status hierarchies of the past.

Dr. Mutz, the Samuel A. Stouffer Professor of Political Science and Communication and Director of the Institute for the Study of Citizens and Politics, followed voters over a four-year period to assess their changing views of trade, the threat posed by China, their sense of group threat, and perceptions of their own personal finances, as well as experiences of unemployment and the economic conditions in their local communities.

Trump’s rhetoric during the 2016 election capitalized on the fears of Americans who currently enjoy dominant status in society, most notably those who were white, Christian, male, or some combination of the three. Many of those Americans, Dr. Mutz found, switched from voting for the Democrat in 2012 to the Republican in 2016. Particularly those who found societal changes threatening voted for Trump in an effort to maintain their perceived social dominance in the country and the world.

Despite exhaustive data analysis, the study did not show any relationship between financial hardship and voting for Trump. Meanwhile, lack of a college education was noted as a strong predictor of support for Trump. Education, Dr. Mutz explains, is also the strongest predictor of support for international trade. Negative attitudes toward racial and ethnic diversity, she points out, are also correlated with low levels of education.

“Elected officials who embrace the ‘left behind’ narrative may feel compelled to pursue policies that will do little to assuage fears of less educated Americans,” Dr. Mutz writes. In other words, addressing economic anxieties may not be the path to winning future elections.

“The 2016 election was a result of anxiety about dominant groups’ future status rather than a result of being overlooked in the past,” she writes. “Given current demographic trends within the United States, minority influence will only increase with time, thus heightening this source of perceived status threat.”