Many observers debated how important Trump’s racial appeals were to his voters. During the campaign, Trump made overt racial comments, with seemingly little electoral penalty. Could the unusual 2016 race have further affected Americans’ racial attitudes?
To test this, I use what is called the “symbolic racism scale” to compare whites who voted for the Democratic presidential candidate with those who voted for the Republican.
This scale measures racial attitudes among respondents who know that it’s socially unacceptable to say things perceived as racially prejudiced. Rather than asking overtly prejudiced questions — “do you believe blacks are lazy” — we ask whether racial inequalities today are a result of social bias or personal lack of effort and irresponsibility.
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.
So race was not just one factor in the 2016 elections, it was the big factor in elections, particularly among white voters, and especially among white voters without college degrees. Basically if you agree with the notion that African-Americans are lazy and that systemic racism is a myth, you were massively more likely to vote for Trump, period.
But of course we knew Trump's appeal to racism was the plan, and the plan worked. But both parties are still pretending that it didn't work, and that the answer to solving this problem of racism is class, education, or anything other than addressing racism head-on.
And so it goes.