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How Racism Helped Trump & Halts Progressive Policy

Sean McElwee

What propelled Donald Trump to victory in the 2016 election? Though the foggy aftermath of the election left us with many competing theories, only now are the data to test them coming out. The recently released American National Election Studies (ANES) survey can give us some insights into the different racial attitudes of Clinton supporters, Trump supporters and Obama to Trump voters.

How Racism Benefited Trump

First, I examined feeling thermometer scores, which ask respondents to rate their feelings for different groups from 0 (coldest) to 100 (warmest). As the chart below shows, Trump voters have colder feelings towards African-Americans, Latinos, Muslims, Black Lives Matter and undocumented immigrants than Clinton voters. Obama to Trump voters have scores similar to Trump voters, and are colder on views about Black Lives Matter.

In addition, I explored views for both candidates over whether the government puts in the interests of black people above the interests of white people. Thirty-seven percent of white Trump voters think the government treats black people better than white people. Sixteen percent of white Trump voters believe that black people have too much influence over politics (compared with three percent of white Clinton supporters).

The chart below shows the share of whites who voted for Trump, Clinton and Obama and then Trump who believe it is difficult for white people to find jobs because of competition with people of color. While 38 percent of white Clinton voters say it is “not at all likely,” only 9 percent of white Trump voters agree. In addition, 45 percent of white Trump voters believe it is “extremely” or “very” important for whites to work together to change laws unfair to whites, compared with 29 percent of white Clinton voters.

How Racism Undermines Progressive Goals

To test how these more explicit forms of racism might affect progressive policymaking, I created an index that combines several variables that measure explicit racial resentment. I included questions that ask respondents whether the government and police favors black people over whites, whether black people have too much influence over politics and how much discrimination black people face. A score of 1 indicates the highest explicit resentment and 0 indicates the lowest explicit racial resentment.

The mean score on the explicit racism scale for whites was 0.38. The mean score for white Trump voters was 0.49 and for Clinton voters 0.23. The chart below shows predicted white support for higher government spending and services on a scale that runs from 1 (many more services and spending) to 0 (many fewer services and spending). The regression controls for age, gender, ideology, party identification, education, income and economic peril. Beliefs that the government favors black people over whites predict lower support for government social spending.


It’s increasingly difficult to deny the fact that racism played a key role in the 2016 Presidential election. Donald Trump benefited from existing trends of polarization along racial attitudes and also propelled those trends forward. Racism limits support for progressive policy and makes it more difficult to progressives to build support among whites for government intervention.