The Democratic Party

of Hood County, Texas

It’s Not The Economic Worries

April 24, 2018


We all recognize that American politics has become a struggle between tribes, so let’s discuss what motivates our tribal rival, conservatives.

VOTER MOTIVATION - A new study, “Status Threat, Not Economic Hardship, Explains The 2016 Presidential Vote”, by Diana C. Mutz, published in “Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences”, examines the evidence that white, Christian, male concerns of loss of status is the primary driver of Trump voters, including those that voted Obama in 2012 and switched to Trump in 2016.

Mutz’ study, based upon panel data of a nationally representative group, found that the personal economic anxiety (using indicators like worry about education costs, savings for retirement, or unexpected medical bills) was not a predictor of Trump support. Further, concern about personal finances or high local unemployment also did not predispose a voter to Trump.


SEXISM AND RACISM - So what did motivate the Trump voter? The key factor, Ms. Mutz found, was the voter believing that white people are more discriminated against than people of color. Additionally, these voters feel that Christians and men suffer more discrimination than Muslims or women. Finally, they expressed a preference for group hierarchy rather than a more egalitarian social structure provided their group was on top.

This finding aligns with the results of several earlier surveys that found that, even when controlling for partisanship, ideology, region and other factors, the prime motivator for a Trump voter was racial resentment.

Another study quantified likelihood of voting for Trump to individual issues. They found that voters’ measures of sexism and racism correlated much more closely with support for Trump than economic dissatisfaction. See below charts.

Motivation Comparison Charts - Courtesy of vox.COM, “The past year of research has made it very clear: Trump won because of racial resentment”, By German Lopez, Dec 15, 2017

The 2016 election was fundamentally more about racial resentment than any other issue. It was the capstone of the Republican “Southern Strategy” that served Nixon, Reagan, and the Bushes so well. It took the “dog whistles” of their era and replaced them with overtly racist statements (“Mexicans are rapists” and “there are fine people on both sides”).

While racial cues (depicting a black man in an advertisement, for instance) can greatly skew a conservative’s viewpoint, it has no measurable effect on a liberal. Conservatives are simply more fearful of the loss of their social and political status. As one researcher put it. “…economic anxiety isn’t driving racial resentment; rather, racial resentment is driving economic anxiety.” They fear that losing “their thumb on the scales” will cost them social prestige and yes, income. The data suggests that Trump voters are more threatened by the accelerating achievements of black people rather than the negative stereotypes they may hold.

Image courtesy of

WHAT WE MUST DO - So what is the “actionable intelligence” here? Given that the overt racist campaigning is now out in the open, how can Democrats confront it and counter its message?

Studies suggest that the approach that works best is non-confrontational, empathic discussion, face-to-face with voters. One study showed that as little as a 10-minute conversation could change viewpoints regarding transgender issues. It appears our best approach is through one-on-one, thoughtful, non-confrontational, empathetic discussions. Almost amusingly, to reach these fearful bigots we have to offer them a “safe space” conversation in an empathetic way without condoning their prejudices.

If that’s the case, we are going to need a lot more door-knockers. There are 63 million voters we have to talk to. Fortunately, the Trump effect has inspired a willing army. The majority of Americans are not motivated by racial animus. It is up to us to use our numbers to educate the other tribe.

**Further Reading: **

Status threat, not economic hardship, explains the 2016 presidential vote

The past year of research has made it very clear: Trump won because of racial resentment

Research says there are ways to reduce racial bias. Calling people racist isn’t one of them.

When contact changes minds: An experiment on transmission of support for gay equality