Racism Bigger Factor than Authoritarianism for Trump Voters

Racism Bigger Factor than Authoritarianism for Trump Voters April 18, 2017

Last week saw the release of the American National Election Survey for the 2016 election, a comprehensive report on the demographics of those who voted in the election. It contains an enormous amount of data that political scientists use to evaluate a great many factors. And it appears that race played a more important role than authoritarianism for Trump voters.


Thomas Wood, a political scientist at Ohio State, has an op-ed in the Washington Post looking at the relative importance of facts like racism, authoritarianism and wealth in those who voted for Trump. You may recall that during the election, polling data at the time suggested that authoritarianism was the single most accurate predictor of support for Trump. Now we have new and better data on that.

First, a note on how the term “authoritarianism” is used in this context. It doesn’t necessarily mean support for a dictator or some other oppressive form of government. As Wood explains, it means “a psychological disposition in which voters have an aversion to social change and threats to social order.” This is a value that is very high among conservatives, along with a strong aversion to anything that they think threatens purity (social or biological) and a very strong sense of tribalism (religious, racial, national, etc). So with that, the results of his analysis:

The next chart shows how white GOP presidential voters have answered these questions since 2000. As we can see, Trump’s voters appear a little less authoritarian than recent white Republican voters…

In the chart below, you can see the scores for white voters who supported the Democratic and Republican presidential candidates between 1988 and 2016. For clarity, the second and fourth items have been reversed so that the larger values always indicate higher animosity.

Since 1988, we’ve never seen such a clear correspondence between vote choice and racial perceptions. The biggest movement was among those who voted for the Democrat, who were far less likely to agree with attitudes coded as more racially biased.

Finally, the statistical tool of regression can tease apart which had more influence on the 2016 vote: authoritarianism or symbolic racism, after controlling for education, race, ideology, and age. Moving from the 50th to the 75th percentile in the authoritarian scale made someone about 3 percent more likely to vote for Trump. The same jump on the SRS scale made someone 20 percent more likely to vote for Trump.

Racial attitudes made a bigger difference in electing Trump than authoritarianism.

This can’t be much of a surprise. Conservatives tend to be authoritarians (by the poli sci definition above), so they always tend to support Republican candidates. What made the 2016 election distinctive was the degree to which coded racial messages, expressed in harsh anti-immigrant rhetoric and other similar devices (including anti-Muslim rhetoric; yes, I know Muslim is not a race, but it’s the same tribalism and perceived threats to it at work there), were on such stark display.

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