One chart to rule them all

As part of the Voter Study Group, Lee Drutman has out an analysis of the 2016 election that is simply amazing.  I swear it’s worth a month of blog posts just to digest all the interesting insights.  For the record, here’s some of his key conclusions:

Let’s review the answers to the four questions this essay posed.

What Divides The Parties Now?
The parties are divided on both social/identity and economic issues, but more so on identity issues. The gaps between the Clinton and Trump voters on questions of racial resentment, immigration, attitudes toward Muslims, and moral issues are consistently wide. There is very little overlap between the two camps on these issues.

By contrast, although the parties are divided on economic issues, there is more overlap. Particularly in the Republican Party, there are a wide range of views on economic issues, now that the party has expanded to include more and more populists who were formerly Democrats.

What Shifted From 2012 To 2016?
The main shift between 2012 and 2016 is that Republicans made gains among the populists (voters who are economically liberal and conservative on social/identity issues). In 2012, Romney outperformed Obama by about a 2-to-1 margin among these voters. In 2016, Trump outperformed Clinton by about a 3-to-1 margin among these voters. The data here strongly suggest that the increasing salience of identity issues in the campaign caused the shift.

It also cost Republicans some votes. Many of the Romney voters who supported Clinton did so because they were uncomfortable with Trump’s far-right positions on immigration and other identity issues.

What Are The Divisions Within The Parties?
Both parties have internal divisions, though the divisions within the Republican Party are probably greater, since Republicans are about equally divided between economically liberal populists and more free-market-oriented conservatives. Republican primaries revealed a Kasich faction that is consistently more moderate across issues, a Trump faction that is more liberal on economic issues but more conservative on identity issues, and a Cruz faction that is more free market on economic issues and particularly conservative on moral issues.

Democrats are less divided on the substantive issues, but somewhat more divided in disposition, with Sanders supporters evincing more anti-establishment disaffection, and Clinton supporters having more faith and enthusiasm toward the political system overall.

What’s definitely drawing the most attention, though, is his Figure 2, of the 2016 American electorate:


Chait’s got his takeaways from the report (look, libertarians don’t actually exist!), but I find these particularly notable:

2. Fiscal conservativesocial liberals are overrepresented.
The study breaks down the beliefs of voters in both parties by income. The parties tend to cohere pretty tightly — rich Republicans are much closer to poor Republicans than either is to the Democrats; and rich Democrats and poor Democrats share more in common than either does with Republicans.

Still, there are important differences. The richest members of both parties have more economically conservative and socially liberal views than the poorest members. That gives them disproportionate influence over their agendas and priorities…

4. Trump won by dominating with populists.
Republicans always need to do reasonably well with populists, which is why there’s always a tension between the pro-government leanings of a large number of their voters and the anti-government tilt of the party agenda. The key to Trump’s success was to win more populists than Mitt Romney had managed. The issues where 2012 Obama voters who defected to Trump diverge from the ones who stayed and voted for Clinton are overwhelmingly related to race and identity.

As Drutman notes, “Among populists who voted for Obama, Clinton did terribly. She held onto only 6 in 10 of these voters (59 percent). Trump picked up 27 percent of these voters, and the remaining 14 percent didn’t vote for either major party candidate.” What makes this result fascinating is that, in 2008, Clinton had positioned herself as the candidate of the white working class and she dominated the white socially conservative wing of her party. But she lost that identity so thoroughly that she couldn’t even replicate the performance of a president who had become synonymous with elite social liberalism. [emphasis mine]

Every election is different. But to the extent that 2016 has an ideological lesson for Democrats, it is that the subject the party is currently debating within itself — whether or how far left to move on economics — is irrelevant to its electoral predicament. The issue space where Clinton lost voters who had supported Obama was in the array of social-identity questions, revolving around patriotism and identity.

Douthat argues that this figure indicates trouble for Democrats:

But for that to happen the Democrats would have to deal with their rather different sort of problem: Their coalition is too ideologically homogeneous, clustering together way down at the lower-left corner of our all-explaining chart, in a quadrant where everyone is consistently and comprehensively liberal.

This uniformity helps explain one of the mysteries of American politics — given that the Republican economic agenda is unpopular and the country has swung left on social issues, why can’t Democrats win more elections? The answer (one of them, at least) is that as the country has moved left, the Democratic Party’s base has consolidated even farther left, and in the process the party has lost the ability to speak to persuadable voters who disagree with the liberal consensus on a few crucial issues.

So, my take… I’m going to start with a couple additions to Drutman’s chart:

I drew blue and red circles to give a rough estimate of where the party elites are and I drew purple lines to give a rough estimate of where the median voter is on the economic and social dimension.

What stands out now?  The Democrats should be killing it based on economic views.  They’re not.  As of 2016 social/identity matters are simply a lot more important to a lot of voters– especially Trump voters.  Also, the Republican Party is extraordinarily out-of-step with its voters on economic issues.  But it doesn’t matter.  Because Democrats are the party of forcing gay weddings on people, Black people unfairly benefiting from government programs, and coddling the Muslim refugees who threaten our safety and very way of life.  What’s a tax cut for the rich that won’t help you when faced with that?  Or possibly losing your health insurance?

So, what really seems clear from this is that the current battleground is on the matter of social/identity issues.  Democrats have essentially won the argument on economic issues.  Alas, Republicans are very craftily using the divide on social issues to win elections and they drive a far-right economic agenda that is well out of step with even a majority of their voters.

So, what’s for Democrats to do?  One option is to move right on social issues to try and capture more of the upper-left populist quadrant.  Given where the weight of the Democratic party is, that’s hard.  Seems to me, the obvious– not easy– solution is to find a way to try and transform the focus of American politics towards economic issues.  If Democrats could successfully do that, all the gerrymandering in the world couldn’t stop them.  You get most everybody to the left of that vertical purple line and things are good.  How to do that?  I don’t know, but I would suggest that this is the problem to be solved and what Democrats need to keep trying to do until they are successful at it.

Alas, I think part of the problem lies with Chait’s #2.  A lot of the donor-class of Democrats are those who are Democrats precisely because of the social/identity issues and they are not as interested in funding a Democratic party that emphasized economic issues, and are, of course, less liberal on the economic issues themselves.

Also, in our highly-polarized, tribal political environment, I think so much of politics is “which side/which tribe” you belong to and I think it is entirely possible that people are more inclined to define their tribe based on attitudes about immigration, Muslims, LGBTQ, etc., than they are about tax cuts, health care, etc.


About Steve Greene
Professor of Political Science at NC State

2 Responses to One chart to rule them all

  1. R. Jenrette says:

    What this article is saying is that naked prejudice Trumps the economic self interest of a large number of voters.
    Bad news for democracy in our country.

  2. ohwilleke says:

    Better analysis than a lot of what I’ve seen.

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