by Dan Hopkins
In the closing days of the 2018 midterms campaign, with the economy on a historic run, President Trump tried to focus Americans’ attention on a caravan of Central American migrants heading toward the United States. He seemed to believe that by highlighting the migrants, he might rally voters back to the GOP in advance of the vote.
In recent weeks, Trump has telegraphed that racialized wedge issues are again a central element of his political strategy and seems to see a consistent political advantage in overt or dog-whistle racist appeals and the condemnation they invariably draw. For example, Trump has promised to protect “the suburban housewife” from lower-income neighbors; threatened to veto a bill that contained a provision to rename military bases named for Confederate leaders; waved off the problem of Black Americans being disproportionately killed by police by saying “so are white people;” focused his campaign advertising on crime and protests; and repeated baseless, racist allegations about Democratic vice presidential nominee Sen. Kamala Harris.
In using racial appeals, the president is the latest in a generations-long line of politicians tapping into a dangerous vein in American politics. But is there sometimes a political logic to such appeals? They didn’t work in 2018. Democrats would go on to take control of the U.S. House and a bunch of governorships.1 That was a midterm election, though, and this is a contest for the presidency. So, are racialized wedge issues likely to work to the GOP’s advantage in November?
To answer that question, it’s valuable to turn back to a case in which the effects of white voters’ racial attitudes and prejudices on voting have already been extensively analyzed: the 2016 general election. Then, too, Trump was widely seen as using racial wedge issues to build political support.
White voters’ racial attitudes in 2016
One good starting point in assessing the impact of white voters’ racial attitudes in 2016 is the influential book “Identity Crisis” by John Sides, FiveThirtyEight contributor Michael Tesler and Lynn Vavreck. The authors build from a long-standing framework in political science which holds that lots of voters have political attitudes that point in opposite directions in terms of which party they might support. (Consider, for example, someone who opposes abortion but believes we need to take immediate action on climate change.)
Campaigns matter, in this view, because they can make specific issues more or less relevant in voters’ evaluation of their choice, a concept sometimes called priming or activation. The telltale sign of activation is that an attitude — in our example, the voter’s opposition to abortion — becomes a more powerful factor in their vote choice after the campaign highlights abortion-related rhetoric. In this way, a voter who believes in climate change might vote for a climate-change denier because that issue has become less of a factor in the voter’s choice.
How did this play out in the real world? In 2012, Barack Obama, the nation’s first Black president, was reelected by a coalition that included a meaningful number of voters with “conservative” views on race-related issues and immigration, particularly in pivotal states. Then, in 2016, many of those voters’ views on racial issues became more closely integrated with their vote choice after exposure to racialized campaign rhetoric, according to a panel survey Sides, Tesler and Vavreck collected tracking the same group of individuals over time. They concluded that Trump won a small but influential sliver of the electorate with conservative views on race and immigration after his campaign foregrounded those identity-infused issues.2
Those are striking findings given that the nation’s first Black president had been running for reelection in 2012, and given that racial attitudes were already very predictive of whether a white voter is likely to be a Republican or a Democrat. Still, it’s broadly consistent with other research on the activation of whites’ racial attitudes in 2016, including Diana Mutz’s research on “status threat” and Matt Baretto and Christopher Parker’s research on racial attitudes and support for the pre-Trump tea party.
On its own, that body of research seems to suggest that Trump could win votes by using racial appeals, especially if activating racialized issues plays to the GOP’s advantage in swing states. Still, it’s critical to keep in mind that activation can cut both ways, since those with liberal racial attitudes can shift away from the GOP just as those with conservative racial attitudes shift toward it. Indeed, we’ve seen exactly that, with college-educated white voters — who tend to have more liberal attitudes on race — moving towards the Democratic Party since Obama’s election in 2008.
Also, activation isn’t the only way to measure a concept as broad and important as “racialized voting.” In a recent paper, Justin Grimmer and Will Marble pointed out that, relative to 2012 GOP nominee Mitt Romney, Trump actually gained more support from voters with moderate views on race than from voters with more conservative racial views. One key difference between Grimmer and Marble’s approach and those detailed above is that they measure whites’ racial attitudes separately in 2012 and 2016. Since white Americans’ racial attitudes overall became more liberal and less prejudiced between those two elections, it stands to reason that fewer Trump supporters would take conservative positions on race-related issues than Romney supporters did.3 In the 2016 general election, I found results generally consistent with Sides and co-authors’ evidence of activation: Respondents at the 20th percentile of anti-Black prejudice (low levels of prejudice) supported Trump 4 percentage points less than did respondents at the 80th percentile (high levels of prejudice), holding constant partisanship and various demographics. (That doesn’t mean Trump got a 4-point advantage, since that number partly reflects low-prejudice white voters shifting away from the GOP.)
In the 2016 GOP primary, though, the role of anti-Black prejudice was much more clear-cut. There, if we compare white voters who identify with the GOP with prejudice scores (measured years earlier) at the 20th percentile to those at the 80th percentile, Trump was doing a striking 10 percentage points better with the latter group in the GOP primary as of January 2016. That association is far stronger than any comparable association observed in the 2008 primaries. In the Democratic primary that year, Obama did a more modest 3 percentage points worse among the group that scored higher on the prejudice scale. Meanwhile, knowing white Republicans’ prejudice scores doesn’t really explain vote choice at all in the 2008 GOP primary. So where did using racial wedge issues arguably work to Trump’s advantage most? In the 2016 GOP primaries.
Where Things Stand Now
Fast forward four years, past Trump’s reaction to the violence in Charlottesville, Virginia, cursing NFL players who kneel for the national anthem, referring to Haiti and African nations as “shithole countries,” and much else.
Looking at that panel survey I used in the Political Behavior study, we can see how the relationship between white respondents’ prejudice and their presidential intentions has changed. In the January 2020 survey wave, the poll included a question about a potential Trump-Biden general election match-up. And respondents who reported especially high levels of prejudice back in 2012 were roughly as firmly with Trump as of this January as they had been in fall 2016.4
But notice the histogram at the bottom, which show how many respondents registered each level of prejudice: The high-prejudice portion of the white electorate where Trump was clearly outperforming Romney accounts for roughly a quarter of all white respondents (to say nothing of nonwhite voters or voters too young to appear in a 12-year-old panel). Further activating this group is likely to have diminishing returns for Trump because there aren’t many of them and they are already strongly behind the president. By contrast, white voters with lower levels of prejudice are far more numerous, and also less likely to be with Trump than in 2016. In other words, Trump has far more room to increase his support among the larger number of white Americans with lower levels of prejudice.
Remember, this wave of the panel was conducted in January — before COVID-19 and, crucially, before the protests following the killing of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor and the shooting of Jacob Blake. The protests may have changed the relationship between racial attitudes and voting in ways not detected in this survey. But the evidence to date suggests that, if anything, the protests may have continued to push white Americans’ racial attitudes in a liberal direction. And as Tesler contends, Democrats are now arguably more unified on race-related issues than Republicans, meaning that relative to 2016, there are fewer voters with the mix of attitudes that might make them responsive to racial appeals. Other issues, like the coronavirus and the government’s response, have also crowded the political agenda, limiting Trump’s ability to change the subject.
True, Grimmer and Marble disagree with Sides, Tesler and Vavreck on the role racial attitudes played in 2016. But when looking ahead to 2020, the researchers are more in agreement. In an email, Grimmer offered a conclusion similar to Tesler’s, noting that “in 2016, Trump was already winning almost all of the declining fraction of voters who are highest in racial resentment. So he has a lot more room for growth among those in the middle of the racial resentment scale, both in terms of turning out and choosing him over Biden.”
It’s surely too soon to count Trump out. But if Trump does win reelection in November, it’s very likely to be due to gains with white voters lower in prejudice or with nonwhite voters. Using racist appeals and racialized wedge issues won him support most clearly in the 2016 GOP primary. But there are key differences between that contest and the 2020 general election — differences that may make racial appeals less impactful this year. And judging from the RNC’s periodic efforts to counter the charge that Trump is racially divisive, some of its planners seem to agree.
Dan Hopkins is a professor of political science at the University of Pennsylvania, and his research focuses on American elections and public opinion. @dhopkins1776