Unprecedented numbers of Americans — including a growing share of Republicans and independents — recognize racial injustice as pervasive, support police reform and back the protests against police brutality. Apparently oblivious to this emerging consensus, Trump is trying to run a Nixon-style “law-and-order” campaign for the 2020 election. And it is killing him politically.
Trump has seen a dramatic and precipitous collapse among people who used to support him, according to an intensive study of swing voters by The New York Times. Critically, this shift does not seem to be driven by economic turbulence or perceived mismanagement of COVID-19; his approval ratings in these domains are equal to or higher than his general approval rating.
Instead, for many voters who have stuck by Trump up to now, the president’s grotesque response to the killing of George Floyd, and especially the protests that followed, seems to have been the main driver. Most Americans, among them significant numbers of Republicans and independents, agree that Trump is exacerbating racial tensions — and it is driving many towards his opponent.
Critically, these defections are occurring primarily among white voters. According to the New York Times data, the president’s margins among minorities are holding fairly steady.
That Trump is seeing major losses among whites specifically as a result of his racially inflammatory behavior seems fairly inexplicable given the common narrative that whites who voted for Trump were motivated largely by racism. But in fact, that common narrative is wrong. The underlying dynamics at work here have been present from the outset: Trump’s racialized rhetoric and policies have always been a drag on his candidacy, including among many whites who have traditionally skewed Republican.
To talk meaningfully about voters being driven by race — i.e., voters for whom the issue is decisive — we have to identify citizens who voted differently than they otherwise would have due to Trump's positions on these issues. They either would have had to vote for him when they otherwise would have abstained, or voted for a different party than they otherwise would have specifically as a result of racial issues.
There’s no evidence that Trump mobilized people who would have otherwise sat the election out. Instead, voter turnout in 2016 ended up being the lowest in decades, as many who strongly opposed Hillary Clinton or the Democrats could not bring themselves to vote for Trump, either. White turnout was stagnant, with Trump actually winning a slightly smaller share of the white vote than Mitt Romney did in 2012 (driven largely by defections among white women).
Trump was able to win despite a lackluster performance among whites partly because he performed significantly better among Hispanics than Romney and got the largest share of the black vote of any Republican since 2004. Of course, Trump can probably claim little credit for this success with minorities — Democrats had been consistently shedding these voters for the better part of the preceding decade.
Nor did the GOP win a majority of white votes specifically because of Trump. Republicans have captured the lion’s share of white votes in every presidential election since at least 1972. There’s no sign that these voters wouldn’t have backed Jeb Bush, Marco Rubio or John Kasich (all of whom were sharply critical of Trump’s racialized rhetoric) had one of them ended up the 2016 nominee, just as they also backed Mitt Romney, John McCain and George W. Bush in previous years — all leaders who have condemned Trump’s rhetoric towards minorities.
In short, the overwhelming majority of people who voted Republican in 2016 were not voting for Trump, but for the party. And if the primaries are any indication, most would have preferred to be able to vote for some other Republican instead. Trump got the lowest primary vote share of any GOP nominee since 1968.
In fact, the most common negative word associated with Trump last cycle, even among Republicans, was “racist” (followed closely by “sexist”). As political scientist Matt Grossmann put it, “His negative statements about minority groups were recognized by voters — but not positively.”
This isn’t the dominant narrative, though, and research and media coverage often serve to back up the idea of the race-driven Trump voter even when the data they are using shows otherwise, as I demonstrated in a recent paper for The American Sociologist.
In a typical example, an author purported to demonstrate that Trump voters were especially motivated by racial animus. In fact, his data showed that Trump voters were less “racist” than Romney voters.
Another author claimed to prove that Trump voters were driven by a desire to preserve white privilege and that they supported Trump’s bid to restrict immigration in order to advance this agenda. In fact, the data showed that Trump voters were warmer on immigration than Romney voters, and that immigration was on balance a losing issue for Trump.
These realities persisted into the midterms. According to a post-election report by The Winston Group, a Republican polling company, Trump’s hardline posture against refugees and immigrants in the leadup to the midterms was a factor in Republicans losing the House. Critically, the attrition the GOP experienced in the 2018 midterms came primarily from more wealthy, educated, urban and suburban whites.
Trump’s problems with white voters have only deepened since the midterms. He is seeing erosion among working class whites (especially working class white women and young people) in addition to those who are relatively well-off. Nearly 80 percent of white evangelicals supported Trump in 2016; only 62 percent approve of him now. In 2016, Trump won white senior citizens by huge margins. This year, he’s running neck-and-neck with his Democratic rival among seniors.
In short, to the extent that Republican votes are being driven by race, it seems to be in the opposite way from what the prevailing narrative would suggest. Rather than energizing people who would have otherwise sat out, Trump seems to have suppressed turnout in 2016 among Republican-leaning voters. Rather than driving defections toward Republicans through his racialized rhetoric, he seems to be driving Republican-leaning voters into the arms of his opposition.
Of course, it is not just journalists and scholars who misunderstand the situation. Despite mocking academia and the media as biased, the president seems to have fully bought into their caricature of the Republican voter. As Vox’s Jane Coaston aptly put it, “Trump campaigns like a Manhattan liberal parody of a conservative.” He keeps giving his voters what he thinks is red meat, and they continue to recoil in horror and abandon him for it.
This is a dynamic that has been present since the 2016 primaries, but which people have been unable to recognize up until now because they’ve been so firmly locked into the idea that racism was the key to Trump’s success. Instead, Trump may lose in 2020 because his racialized policies and rhetoric have alienated key white constituencies that previously skewed Republican.