by Perry Bacon Jr.
From suggesting on his first day as a presidential candidate back in 2015 that Mexico was intentionally sending “rapists” to America to calling last week for several liberal congresswomen of color to “go back” to their countries, President Trump has repeatedly used racial and at times racist language over the last four years. And in doing so he has tapped into what some scholars describe as white identity politics, attracting support from those wary of the growing population of Americans who are not white or Christian, as well as those who have negative views about groups of people like black people and Muslims.
These moves have created an active debate among political observers about whether Trump is acting on his sincere beliefs, employing a political strategy or pursuing some combination of the two. It’s hard to know Trump’s motives (and likely it is some combo). But assuming that Trump’s rhetoric and policy approach on issues of race, religion, nationality and other forms of identity are at least in part a political strategy, is it a smart one? Does the way Trump use white identity politics help him and the GOP electorally, even if he at times veers into racism that members of his own party can’t defend? And are the Democrats (usually more establishment, centrist figures) who worry the party is playing into Trump’s hands when it defends members of Congress like Rep. Ilhan Omar of Minnesota generally right, at least in terms of political strategy?
These are very complicated questions. But let’s look at what we know from the 2016 and 2018 elections and try to answer them.
1. The way Trump talked about identity issues probably did help him win the 2016 Republican primary.
The 2016 Republican primary is the place in which I think it’s most clear that Trump’s approach to issues of race and identity helped him. In their research during the 2016 primaries, UC Irvine’s Michael Tesler and George Washington University’s John Sides found that Republican voters who felt a strong sense of white racial identity and believed that whites were being unfairly discriminated against were more likely to back Trump than other GOP voters during the primaries. These voters were instrumental in building Trump’s coalition and cementing his early lead in the polls.
Trump also did well with voters who were very concerned about immigration—he was by far the most popular candidate among Republican voters who said that immigration was the most important issue to them, according to exit polls conducted during the 2016 GOP primaries. He did not have such big advantages on other issues.
Immigration drove Trump’s victory in the GOP primary
Trump’s vote share in 2016 primaries and caucuses among voters who listed a given issue as most important.
This isn’t to say everyone who supported Trump in the primaries was motivated by identity issues. Trump also campaigned as a kind of big-government Republican, pledging not to cut Medicare or Social Security. Trump was distinct from rival GOP candidates in other ways, too — most notably as a newcomer to politics who cast himself as outside of the hated political establishment. Trump also enjoyed a level of fame — most notably from his stint on “The Apprentice” — that most other candidates did not have.
That said, Trump’s pledges to build a wall on the U.S.-Mexico border and ban Muslims from entering the country, alongside his rhetoric emphasizing those stances, differentiated him from the other GOP candidates, and probably played an outsized role in helping him win the nomination.
2. But whether the way Trump talked about race and identity helped him win the general election is less clear.
Figuring out the exact role of Trump’s identity politics in the general election is more murky. In their book, “Identity Crisis,” Sides, Tesler and UCLA’s Lynn Vavreck argue that in the general election, Trump won over voters in swing states like Michigan and Wisconsin, including people who had previously backed Obama, by appealing to their conservative views on issues like immigration.
And that research generally fits with the other data we have about the 2016 election. Trump won by a larger margin with white Americans without college degrees any Republican candidate since 1980, according to exit polls. And research from the Public Religion Research Institute suggests the white voters without college degrees who backed Trump were more likely to be those who were worried about feeling out of place in an increasingly culturally diverse America. By contrast, white voters without college degrees who were more worried about their individual economic conditions backed Clinton. Americans who voted for Obama in 2012 and Trump in 2016, like those who voted for Romney in 2012 and Trump in 2016, have more negative views about black people and Muslims and are more conservative on immigration policy than Obama-Clinton voters, according to research from Lee Drutman, a scholar at the think tank New America.
But there are reasons to be skeptical that his rhetoric on race and identity was the main explanation for Trump’s victory. Peter Enns of Cornell University argues that the research — including that of Sides, Tesler and Vavreck — linking support of Trump to his stances on immigration and other issues of race and identity may have the cause and effect backward. Americans may have decided to support Trump for reasons other than his stances on identity issues (for example, perhaps because he was an outsider to politics). According to Enns, these Trump voters may have then adjusted their views on immigration and other issues to align with Trump’s, as opposed to backing Trump because of his stance on racial and identity issues.
Another explanation for Trump’s victory is that it was largely because of factors that had little to do with his campaign approach. For instance, some election models that ignored the two candidates and instead focused on factors like the economy and Obama’s approval rating predicted that Republicans would win. Whatever the merits of Trump (and Clinton’s strategies), the overwhelming majority of 2016 voters backed the same party as they did in 2012. By far the most important factor in Trump’s victory in 2016 was that he was the GOP nominee for president and millions of Republican-leaning voters likely backed him simply because they are Republicans.
“A more appropriate narrative for 2016 might be that despite Trump’s racism, partisanship, political ideology and partisan issues dominated vote choice,” Enns wrote in the paper describing his findings.
A perfectly plausible theory of the 2016 election would go something like this: Trump’s racial rhetoric turned off some voters, brought in some new ones, and was basically an electoral wash. He won because most American elections are close because of partisanship and he also had a few specific advantages. Clinton was running for a third term for her party, and some voters might have wanted a change; some Americans who hated both candidates were willing to take a chance on the person who wasn’t already part of the political establishment (or a woman); and on the eve of the election, the FBI announced it was examining what it described as newly discovered evidence in an investigation of whether Clinton had committed a crime.
All of that is to say that it’s hard to rule out the possibility that Trump won the general election largely because of factors outside of how he talked about race and identity.
3. The way Trump talked about race and identity in 2017-18 probably hurt Republicans in the midterms, but this is a contested idea.
Another reason to be skeptical that how Trump talked about identity issues helped him win the election in 2016 is that Trump pursued a similar strategy in 2017-18 and it flopped. The GOP, with Trump not on the ballot but still as the party leader, lost a net of 40 U.S. House seats and control of the chamber. Republicans also lost gubernatorial and Senate races in Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, three states Trump had flipped to the GOP in 2016.
In fact, the Republicans lost in exactly the way you would expect if Trump’s racial strategy is not particularly smart — white voters with college degrees who don’t align with Trump on identity issues strongly rejected the GOP, particularly in the suburbs. Yes, Republicans gained a net of two seats in the Senate by winning in heavily GOP leaning states. But the story of 2018 was that Republicans failed to match their huge margins among white voters without degrees from 2016 — and white voters with degrees were more Democratic-leaning than they were in 2016.
So maybe Trump’s strategy on racial issues is mostly flawed?
But the story is complicated here, too. In the 2018 midterms, Democrats had a strategy that explicitly emphasized economic issues and health care, in particular, congressional Republicans’ attempts to repeal Obamacare. They did not emphasize issues with a racial or identity element like Trump’s ban on people from a number of a majority-Muslim nations coming to the U.S. or his initial refusal to disavow white nationalists after they held a rally in Charlottesville, Virginia.
In their winning gubernatorial campaigns, Wisconsin’s Tony Evers emphasized his support for education, while Michigan’s Gretchen Whitmer focused on improving the state’s roads. So maybe the Democrats won in 2018 because of their anti-Obamacare-repeal, pro-kitchen-table-issues platform, and Trump’s identity politics were not an important factor. It’s impossible to know whether Democrats would have made such gains if Trump kept taking controversial identity stances, but didn’t also try to repeal Obamacare and push through an unpopular tax cut that delivered most of its benefits to the wealthiest Americans.
Another complication to the idea that 2018 showed the downside of Trump-style identity politics is what happened in Florida. In his successful gubernatorial campaign, Ron Desantis cast himself as a Trump-style figure strongly in favor of building a wall on the U.S.-Mexico border and banning Florida towns from becoming “sanctuary cities” that limit their police forces’ cooperation with federal immigration authorities. This is only one race to be sure, but it’s hard to say that Trump’s style of politics has backfired when it delivers the governorship in one of the biggest swing states.
Also, we should note one other factor that no doubt shaped the midterms — the party of the president in power nearly always loses ground in terms of congressional seats.
To conclude, I think the safest answer to the question of whether Trump’s identity politics are a good strategy, at least in a general election, is “we don’t really know” or “maybe, maybe not.” He won in 2016, but his party lost in 2018 — and both of those elections had a lot more at play than just how Trump spoke about issues of race and identity.
And that lack of clarity explains a lot of what’s happening in the lead-up to 2020 — both parties to some extent are divided over how to approach these.
Some Democrats believe that Trump did win in 2016 largely because of his rhetoric on immigration and other cultural issues. But they are split on what to do about it. Some (like some moderate members in the House) want those in the party who are perceived to be super liberal on these issues or will be seen as such because of their identity (like Omar, a Muslim American woman) to stand down and not have high-profile roles, fearing they will offend white swing voters.
Other Democrats (think progressive activists) believe that Trump has made race and identity such a central focus in American politics that Democrats can’t try to sidestep or downplay these issues. They also think the party can win by mobilizing anti-Trump voters instead of persuading Obama-Trump ones. A third group of Democrats (such as Bernie Sanders) are less focused on the role Trump’s identity stances did or didn’t have in 2016 and are instead pushing a more populist brand of politics they feel will draw in some of those who voted for Trump in 2016.
That debate over policy and messaging to some extent overlaps with the 2020 Democratic primary contest. Does the party choose a candidate who might appeal to Obama-Trump voters with his or her populist economic stances (Sanders, Elizabeth Warren) or maybe a candidate who might appeal to those same voters by virtue of being a white man or downplaying his liberalism on these issues of race and identity (Joe Biden?). Or does the party pick a person who might focus on mobilizing college-educated white voters and minorities and takes more liberal stances on issues of race and identity (Beto O’Rourke)? And should the party be worried candidates who are not white and male (Cory Booker, Kamala Harris, Warren) will be seen as embodying the diversity of the country in a way that some Trump voters don’t like?
On the GOP side, there is also some confusion about whether Trump’s racial approach works or not. While most congressional Republicans defended Trump after his controversial tweets last week, some in the party like Rep. Will Hurd of Texas broke with him. A third bloc that included Sen. Susan Collins of Maine gave tortured statements that suggested they were flummoxed about how to respond.
“We don’t really know” is an unsatisfying answer, but I think it’s an important one. That uncertainty explains why this question of how effective Trump’s stances on issues of race and identity remains so prominent in coverage of national politics, why the two parties, particularly the Democrats, are experiencing such internal friction about their possible electoral strategies and why that friction is unlikely to end until Election Day next year.
Perry Bacon Jr. is a senior writer for FiveThirtyEight. @perrybaconjr