If you’ve ever read one of my articles, after a recent political bet that I’ve shared wins, then you know I love to gloat and say “I told you so” when I nail my predictions. So, it’s only fair that I admit when my interpretations of the changing US political landscape may have been wrong.

Since 2016, all the evidence has appeared to point to growing populist movements within both parties, fueled by decades of neoliberal economic and trade policies and ever-widening income inequality.

  • Bernie Sanders’s progressive platform upset the status quo in the post-Obama Democratic Party in consecutive election cycles, forcing party leaders to rig the primaries against him both times.
  • In 2020, we also saw an unconventional candidate in Andrew Yang, running on a universal basic income and the threats posed to US workers by AI and automation, outperform favored centrist Democrats like Kamala Harris, Beto O’Rourke, Julian Castro, and Cory Booker.
  • And of course, the shock of all shocks was Donald Trump bulldozing the field of 2016 Republican primary candidates in route to an even more stunning upset of Hillary Clinton, while rejecting long-held conservative ideologies — particularly those related to free trade and economics.

Conventional wisdom suggested that American voters’ priorities were shifting; they rejected the politics of the past several decades and started to focus mainly on their economic interests.

Over the past year, I’ve criticized the Trump campaign for abandoning their populist messaging from four years ago in favor of engaging in a culture war.

  • They called Joe Biden a “Trojan Horse for radical socialists,”
  • railed against the destruction of statues during racial protests, and
  • heavily promoted “law and order.”

They may have known what they were doing after all.

Even after Donald Trump lost the 2020 election, preliminary data suggested a party realignment was taking place. While the Democrats pursued moderate “Never Trump” Republicans in the suburbs, the GOP was becoming the rural, blue-collar worker’s party.

When the incumbent performed somewhat better with Black and Hispanic voters than he had four years prior, conservatives like Marco Rubio began envisioning a Republican Party of the future built on a multi-ethnic, multi-racial working-class coalition.

Well, a recent research study might be turning some of those assumptions on their head. If its authors are correct, what they’ve discovered will be invaluable to political handicappers betting on future elections.

Based on the Center for the Study of Partisanship and Ideology’s (CSPI) findings, cultural issues are still king when it comes to American electoral politics.

The Center for the Study of Partisanship and Ideology

The Center for the Study of Partisanship and Ideology uses statistical analysis to challenge conventional political wisdom and provide further insight into recent electoral trends.

Their website’s “About US” section reads:

“The Center for the Study of Partisanship and Ideology (CSPI) was formed in 2020 to help support research into underexplored ideas in political psychology and the social sciences. With the rise of populism, increasing polarization, and identity-based movements across the world, there has rarely been a better time to study these topics.”

They list the following as their five main areas of interest:

  1. The Great Awokening – White American liberals shifting ” further to the left on issues related to race, gender, and sexual orientation.”
  2. The Relationship between the Replication Crisis and Political Bias in Social Psychology
  3. The Tension Between Tribalism and Morality
  4. Populism and Anti-Left Backlash as a Global Phenomenon
  5. Racial Minorities and Political Psychology

“The National Populist Illusion: Why Culture, Not Economics, Drives American Politics”

The research paper that prompted me to write this article is titled, The National Populist Illusion: Why Culture, Not Economics, Drives American Politics. It examines the validity of some prevailing narratives floated by the media and political strategists since 2016, trying to explain Donald Trump’s surprising win.

One of the more commonly held mainstream beliefs is that poor racist white people, motivated by eight years under a Black president, elected Donald Trump in what CNN’s Van Jones once called a “white-lash,” or “white backlash.”

This appears to be partially right. (More on that later.)

Following the incumbent’s improved showing with minority voters in 2020, the theory evolved — the parties were realigning based on class/income. The GOP would be the working-class party while Democrats appealed to the affluent cultural elites.

However, the data suggests Trump’s popularity had more to do with cultural issues than income or economic policy.

From the study:

“An examination of the 2020 exit polls conducted by CNN, however, does not provide strong evidence of a class-based realignment in voting.[30] Trump carried voters without a college degree by only two points. Biden won a majority of the votes from people making less than $100,000 per year; Trump won a majority of those making more. The relationship between income and presidential vote choice furthermore does not appear linear. Biden beat Trump in the lowest income group, but performed slightly better among those making between $50,000 and $100,000 per year.”

So, a non-college-educated voter making over $100,000 a year was significantly more likely to vote for Trump than a broke college graduate bogged down by student loan debt.

Education

In the above quote, you may notice that it says, “Trump carried voters without a college degree by only two points.” However, the incumbent’s advantage in this category is more pronounced than that quote suggests.

First of all, that CNN exit poll figure represents college education data across all races. The more useful information comes from analyzing college education by race.

  • White voters with no degree (35% of respondents): 67% voted for Trump vs. 32% for Biden.
  • White voters with a college (32% of respondents): 48% voted for Trump vs. 51% for Biden.
  • Voters of color with no degree (24% of respondents): 26% voted for Trump, vs. 72% for Biden.
  • Voters of color with a college degree (10% of respondents): 27% voted for Trump vs. 70% for Biden.

If the CNN exit polls are accurate, Donald Trump had a sizable advantage with non-college-educated white voters, but only a slight disadvantage among whites with a college degree.

The more significant divide was along racial lines – despite the incumbent’s improved support among people of color. Voters of color with and without college degrees were firmly in favor of Joe Biden.

Trump’s saving grace is that (as of 2019), 69% of registered voters in the US are non-Hispanic white Americans. Similarly, 65% of registered voters don’t have a college degree.

So, while it’s become popular to point out the strong correlation between college education and political affiliation, those numbers have much more to do with race than is immediately apparent.

Immigration

Another intriguing part of the study was its analysis of voters’ opinions about immigration. A person’s attitude towards immigration is one of the strongest predictors of their support for Donald Trump.

The table below demonstrates how the probability of white voters supporting Trump in 2016 was correlated with their attitudes towards immigration and annual income.

https://cspicenter.org/the-national-populist-illusion-why-culture-not-economics-drives-american-politics/

As you can see, the more accepting of immigration respondents were, the less likely they were to vote for Donald Trump, and vice versa. Over 80% who wanted to “reduce immigration a lot” backed him. Meanwhile, economic status had almost no impact at all!

However, conservative opposition to immigration appears to be more complicated than racism or prejudice. Another paper published by the CSPI titled Partisanship and Support for Immigration studied the variables influencing people’s opinions on immigration.

Here’s an excerpt from the piece explaining how they conducted their test:

“In order to test this possibility, I conducted a preregistered study with a representative sample of white Americans. The survey asked them how open they would be to accepting certain refugees into the United States.” “The characteristics of the refugees were changed along the following three dimensions:

Race: Refugees were either from the white country of Ukraine, or the predominately non-white country of Venezuela. Although one might suspect that this treatment would invoke stereotypes about Venezuela and Ukraine instead of non-white and white people as such, American ignorance about most of the rest of the world makes this unlikely. Luckily, the study was carried out before Ukraine jolted to the top of the headlines due to Trump’s impeachment.

Voting behavior: Respondents were told that the new migrants would settle in Florida, a swing state, and either vote Democrat, like most immigrant groups, or vote Republican, due to previous experience with socialism. Both these stories seem plausible enough.

Skill level: Refugees were said to be either high- or low-skilled, that is able to pull their own weight economically or likely to rely on government assistance.”

What they found was that an immigrant’s race had no impact on either side’s opinion. What did make a difference is how respondents thought the immigrant groups would vote! When told that they’ll likely vote for Republicans, conservative support grew while liberals were less accepting. As the study says: 

“The gap between the groups “very liberal” and “very conservative” in support for immigration is cut by around two-thirds when refugees are said to support Republicans instead of Democrats!”

After Hispanic voters in several crucial battleground states increased their support for Donald Trump in 2020, Republican attitudes towards immigration may start to shift. The paper goes as far as to say, “liberal talk about a rising permanent “Democratic majority” through immigration may backfire, as it is sure to make conservatives more likely to want to keep new arrivals out of the country.”

Race

One of the reasons economic issues were believed to be the driving force behind Trump’s 2016 victory was the influx of new Republicans, also known as “Obama-to-Trump voters.”

Suppose the election of Donald Trump represented a backlash against the first African American President by the white non-college-educated electorate. Why did so many of these same people vote for them both?

Another fact that seemed to support the Republican “party of the working-class” theory was Trump increasing his share of the minority vote in 2020. Meanwhile, he lost support from non-Hispanic white Americans. Combined, these two outcomes painted a picture of political realignment organized around economic status.

But even with the slight improvements in minority voter support, there are still high levels of racial polarization in US elections. While 58% of non-Hispanic white voters cast a ballot for Trump in 2020, only 26% of minority voters did the same.

The following table is the result of a survey completed during the 2016 primaries. It shows how white non-Hispanic voters felt about Donald Trump related to a range of variables, including immigration, race, and socioeconomics.

https://cspicenter.org/the-national-populist-illusion-why-culture-not-economics-drives-american-politics/

Immigration, Anti-PC, and White Identity were the top three factors!

This brings us back to those Obama-to-Trump voters.

The study’s author argues that the shift towards conservatism has to do with racial issues being pushed to the forefront of American discourse between 2012 and 2016.

Excerpt:

“Racial attitudes were just less salient in 2012 than in 2016.[18] In other words, the people who switched support from Democrat to Republican did have more conservative racial attitudes than other Democrats in 2012, but those attitudes were less relevant to their vote choice that year. In the 2016 election, racial attitudes were more activated and relevant to vote choice, likely due to Trump’s taking up the immigration issue and running as an unapologetic opponent of political correctness.”

Remember, when Barack Obama was first elected, the cliché mainstream stance to take towards race was “I don’t see color.” In 2016, we saw the start of the Black Lives Matter movement, “white guilt,” and liberal “wokeness” gain prominence.

Socially conservative Americans who previously voted Democrat rejected what they interpreted as an attack on white identity, demonstrated in the table. I believe there’s a significant overlap between racial issues and a rejection of political correctness in this case.

Trump’s Economic Populism

If Donald Trump’s populist economic promises from the 2016 campaign were responsible for his popularity, why did he maintain such high levels of support through 2020?

He failed to deliver on the vast majority of the policy agenda on which he initially ran.

The CSPI paper says:

“During the first two years of his term, President Trump largely deferred to the Republican-controlled Congress on matters of domestic policy.[27] His most significant domestic legislative accomplishment created tax cuts for individuals and corporations that disproportionately favored the rich. The Trump administration supported an attempted rollback of the Affordable Care Act that would have made major cuts in Medicaid, significantly gutting the social safety net without putting forward anything to replace it.

“These failures to follow through on economic populism did not apparently hinder the president’s approval with his base. Shortly before the 2020 general election, polling indicated that a majority of Americans either strongly or somewhat approved of Trump’s handling of the economy.[28] There are many possible explanations for Trump’s loss, but the evidence that his economic policy commitments were the culprit appears weak.”

It wasn’t Trump’s populist positions that drove his popularity in 2016; it was the way he used them.

The policies were just a vehicle for him to insult and humiliate establishment candidates like Jeb Bush, Marco Rubio, and Hillary Clinton.

  • Many Trump supporters happily voted for the first Black president when “whiteness” wasn’t portrayed as something inherently wrong for which one should feel guilty.
  • Their opinions of immigration are entirely predicated on whether the incoming refugees will vote Republican or Democrat. After years of hearing about “white minorities” and demographic shifts resulting in permanent Democratic majorities in key states, they embraced Trump’s plan to “build a wall.”
  • The numbers suggest a significant percentage of Trump supporters – of all races — are merely anti-establishment and anti-political correctness. They see the trends in academia and the media and figure if Donald Trump pisses those people off, he’s their candidate.

The CSPI study shows that “owning the libs” is near the top of Republican voters’ priorities.

Donald Trump’s popularity is a rejection of liberals shifting further to the left on race, gender, and sexual orientation.

There’s no party realignment happening; American politics are still centered around cultural concerns. And most of those cultural issues are directly related to the dramatic changes being promoted by liberal institutions.

Trump Matters More than “Trumpism”

If the Center for the Study of Partisanship and Ideology is right, we must completely change how we handicap the 2024 Republican primary and the presidential election. Since Donald Trump’s loss, the conversation has been about the future of the GOP.

Polls show that Trump is the favorite to be the Republican nominee again in 2024 if he chooses to run. They’ve also demonstrated that most current GOP voters see themselves as Trump supporters first and Republicans second.

Donald Trump is going to exercise immense control over the party for the foreseeable future.

However, most analysts have assumed Trumpism can survive without the man himself. Young economic populist Republicans inspired by Trump are gaining prominence and expected to continue what his 2016 campaign started.

The expectation was that future candidates could keep the President’s trade, immigration, and economic policies without the more chaotic, unpresidential aspects of Trump’s personality.

Now, it’s looking like Trump’s more abrasive personality traits are a key ingredient of his appeal.

The American people are frustrated and sense something is very wrong with the government but can’t agree on specific policy fixes. So, they latch onto cultural issues, and candidates like Bernie Sanders and Andrew Yang who – despite lacking Trump’s in-your-face style — are similarly political outsiders or anti-establishment.

When forecasting the 2022 midterms and 2024 primaries and elections, political bettors should keep these things in mind. Don’t overvalue conservative economic populists trying to recapture that Trump magic. Focus on candidates who feel exciting, unconventional, and who piss off the political elite

This culture war’s not going anywhere anytime soon.