Why Republicans Warm To Donald Trump

Why Republicans Warm to Donald Trump

While Donald Trump has directed much of his vitriol at Muslims and Hispanics since he became a candidate for the Republican presidential nomination last summer, he hasn’t said much about African-Americans.

Aside from an awkward moment at a rally in Redding, California in which he pointed out a single African-American in the crowd, Trump has been rather subdued on the subject of relations between blacks and whites. He spoke approvingly when a crowd of his supporters “roughed up” a “”Black Lives Matter” activist at one of his rallies, but his comments were more focused on the fact that the activist was disrupting the rally, not on race relations in general or on the “Black Lives Matter” movement in particular.

In February, The Huffington Post posted an article purporting to give 10 examples of racist behavior on the part of Mr. Trump. While it includes Mr. Trump’s infamous inquiry into whether President Obama was born in the United States and his failure to disavow, in a forthright way, the support he is receiving from white supremacist groups, most of the examples involve clearly racist things said or done by others on his behalf. The article also includes his notorious comments about Muslims and Latinos.

In fact, though African-American commentator Tavis Smiley has called Mr. Trump a “religious and racial arsonist,” he’s also noted that Mr. Trump has a large number of elite African-American friends who seem genuinely to like him. And, given tensions between blacks and Hispanics over competition for low wage jobs, conversations with average African-American voters have lead Smiley to believe that blacks don’t think anything Mr. Trump has said or done is “necessarily or automatically disqualifying.”

On the other hand, Mr. Trump has publically disagreed with comments the late Justice Antonin Scalia made about African-Americans during oral arguments in an important affirmative action case . Scalia, Trump said, was “very tough to the African-American community.”

That’s why new data from the American National Election Study is so interesting. Completed by 1200 adults in late January, it included a battery of questions designed to measure what political scientists call “racial resentment.” Racial resentment or “symbolic racism” are “racist attitudes that are expressed in a way that is seemingly neutral, but still animates racial anger.” The concept is helpful in measuring racism, particularly because it has become unacceptable or “politically incorrect” to express opinions that are outwardly hostile toward members of various racial groups.

One of the questions in the battery, for example, asks people to agree or disagree with the following statement:

It’s really a matter of some people not trying hard enough; if black people would only try harder they could be just as well off as whites.

Agreeing with statements like these leads to high scores on a scale of racial resentment that runs from 0 to 100. High scores on the scale indicate high levels of racial resentment.

I used the scale to predict the level of warmth respondents felt toward Mr. Trump and several other presidential candidates, measured by “feeling thermometer” questions also included in the survey. After controlling for race, educational attainment, gender, family income and “born again” status, I found that levels of racial resentment influenced how warmly Republicans felt about eight of the candidates campaigning for their parties’ respective presidential nominations.

As Figure 1 shows, racial resentment had the largest effect, among

Figure 1

Republicans, on feelings of warmth toward Donald Trump. For every 10 point increase on the racial resentment scale, Republican respondents feelings of warmth toward Donald Trump’s increased by almost 7 points as measured on the 100 point feeling thermometer. Ted Cruz was the only other Republican presidential candidate who benefited from increasing racial resentment. For him, that increase was half of what it was for Donald Trump.

Racial resentment didn’t affect levels of warmth felt for Marco Rubio, Ben Carson or Carly Fiorina in any statistically significant way. And for Jeb Bush, increasing racial resentment led to the same kind of effect — a reduction in warm feelings — as it did for Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders.

For the sake of comparison, I also calculated the extent to which resentment of political correctness — one of Mr. Trump’s key campaign themes — affected warm feelings among Republicans toward him and to the other 7 presidential candidates. Republicans who thought Americans had become too politically correct didn’t feel any differently about Donald Trump than Republicans who felt that current levels of political correctness were more or less appropriate.

For Republicans who object to current levels of political correctness, the largest statistically significant effect was to increase feelings of warmth for Ted Cruz by 20 points and Carly Fiorina by 30 points. Those same feelings about political correctness decreased any warmth Republicans felt toward Hillary Clinton by over 20 points.

There are two takeaways from this analysis of the ANES data. The first is that race continues to be an animating factor in Republican politics, even if the front-running candidate has not made a campaign issue of it the way that, say, George Wallace did in the 1960s. Some Republican voters apparently hear, in Trump’s call to “make America great again,” a chance to return to a time when whites were dominant and people of color “knew their place.”

The second is that there are clear lines of cleavage in the Republican coalition on the issue of race that may be subsumed in the more general cultural conservatism espoused by politicians such as Ted Cruz. It may be that racial and social conservatives — voters supporting Donald Trump and Ted Cruz — are beginning to part ways with the socially and racially tolerant Republican voters who are more interested in economic and national defense policy. This parting of the ways may be the precursor of a new and viable center right American political party capable of attracting the some of the voters the Republican party currently repels.

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