Why Did Trump Win?

Of all the columnists occupying the choicest real estate at the paper of record, Thomas B. Edsall is closest in temperament and approach to the Policy Tensor. What I find particularly attractive about Edsall’s approach is that he pays close attention to contemporary scholarship. What Martin Wolf is to global economics and finance, Edsall is to US politics and society.

Donald Trump’s wholly unexpected triumph in 2016 is the main explanandum of a vast political science literature that has emerged in the three years since. Economic explanations predominated at the beginning. Since then, a different diagnosis has come to the fore that traces support for Trump to White racial prejudice. This diagnosis has achieved a nearly hegemonic position among political scientists and Democratic elites more generally. Diana C. Mutz’s paper “Status threat, not economic hardship, explains the 2016 presidential vote” spelled out the diagnosis.

How is it that the same American public that elected an African American to two terms as US President subsequently elected a president known to have publicly made what many consider to be racist and sexist statements?

A possible explanation is dominant group status threat. … For the first time since Europeans arrived in this country, white Americans are being told that they will soon be a minority race. The declining white share of the national population is unlikely to change white Americans’ status as the most economically well-off racial group, but symbolically, it threatens some whites’ sense of dominance over social and political priorities. Furthermore, when confronted with evidence of racial progress, whites feel threatened and experience lower levels of self-worth relative to a control group. They also perceive greater antiwhite bias as a means of regaining those lost feelings of self-worth.

Edsall’s latest dispatch was prompted by the publication of a new paper that tracks secular partisan realignment. Kitschelt and Rehm argue that education and income furnish good axes to track the realignment.

First, we show that the center-left party, in the United States at least, is being abandoned by lower-education/higher-income voters as much as by the working class (lower-education/lower-income). Second, we show that lower-income voters are divided sharply into two groups. One consists of highly educated people whose numbers and support for the Democratic Party are growing. Its members have become the core of center-left politics. The other group of low-income voters consists of those with lower education levels. Its members have drifted toward right-wing politics on the basis of appeals to authoritarian conceptions of social governance, racism, and xenophobia. But they have also become a “swing” group, up for grabs by either party, given their redistributive economic policy preferences.

Edsall spells out the import of these results for 2020.

The 2020 election will be fought over the current loss of certainty — the absolute lack of consensus — on the issue of “race.” Fear, anger and resentment are rampant. Democrats are convinced of the justness of the liberal, humanistic, enlightenment tradition of expanding rights for racial and ethnic minorities. Republicans, less so.

The salience of racial prejudice can hardly be doubted with this President in office. But are we not mistaking symptoms for causes? Is heightened anxiety over racial status the ultimate driver of the Trump phenomena? More pointedly: Is Trump’s base simply Hillary’s infamous “deplorables”? Or do we perceive it to be so because of the hold of Boasian antiracism on our minds? It is at least worth exploring the idea that support for Trump may be driven by real grievances.

What is common to this political science literature is that their empirical strategy relies on survey data. These are pretty large samples so the problem is not sample size. Rather the problem is that such surveys de-situate people. Each individual appears as an independent subject, grappling with socioeconomic and political trends. That’s fine as far as it goes. But what it leaves out is the spatial correlations due to the fact that people are members of situated communities.

We cannot afford to ignore geography because of two facts. First, the electoral college vote is of great consequence to party competition at the national level. Recall that the Trump coalition only prevailed because sparsely-populated regions in the interior are over-represented in the electoral college. Indeed, since the densely-populated regions on the coasts are Democratic strongholds, the electoral college system systematically discriminates against them. The result is that Democrats have a near lock on the popular vote, while the Republicans have a systematic advantage in electoral college votes. We should not be looking at nationally-representative, that is, population-weighted samples. Rather, we should be weighting by electoral college votes; at least in as much as we care about electoral outcomes and their drivers.

Second, the United States has increasingly become regionally polarized since the 1960s. It is possible, nay, likely, that people are angry, fearful, and resentful, not because their personal circumstances have changed for the worse, but because they see their communities falling apart and see no one in Washington paying any attention to it. As my democratic socialist friend, Ted Fertik mentioned:

Is your community suffering?—Was really the question Trump was speaking to.

So we must build geography right into the analysis. Once we start looking at electoral college-weighted, county-level correlates of the Trump swing—Trump’s vote share less Romney’s vote share—a very different pattern emerges. The three strongest predictors of the Trump swing are college graduation rate, population growth rate, and growth in deaths due to drug overdoses in 2003-2017.

We define the fixed-effect of a predictor as the product of its interquartile range and the slope coefficient. The interpretation is straightforward: The fixed-effect captures how much the response (here, Trump swing in an otherwise average county) moves when we move the predictor from its 25th percentile to its 75th percentile. Defined in this manner, fixed-effects allow us to compare the gradients of different predictors.

College Graduation Rate is a very strong predictor of Trump swing. The fixed-effect in a simple regression model with electoral college weights is -3.3%. That’s larger than the overall electoral-college weighted Trump swing, +3.1%. Counties that swung to Trump have a less educated population than the national average.


Population growth is also a strong predictor of the Trump swing. The fixed-effect in a simple regression model with electoral college weights is -2.8%. The fixed-effect of Net Migration Rate is also high:  -1.6%. This suggests that Trump strongholds are places that are bleeding people. College-educated people are known to be much more mobile than people without a college degree. This suggests that the pattern we see in college graduation rates is due to college-graduates leaving, or not returning, to these places. This interpretation is strengthened when we observe that the college graduation rate is correlated with both population growth (r=0.456, p<0.0001) and net migration rate (r=0.396, p<0.0001).


But the most striking correlate of the Trump swing is growth in deaths due to drug overdose. The fixed-effect of this variable is a remarkable +3.4%. That’s higher than the fixed-effect of college graduation rate, population growth rate, and net migration rate.


Indeed, in a three-factor model, growth in deaths due to overdose emerges as the strongest predictor of the Trump swing. Although the fixed-effects of all three conditioners have the same order of magnitude.


The results are robust to a variety of controls. And no other conditioner comes even close in explaining the Trump swing.

Did counties where Whites are declining as a percentage of the population swing to Trump? That would be the implication of the racial resentment thesis—at least in as much as prejudice is driven by locally-visible demography. The answer is no. Change in the percentage of population that calls itself White (“DeltaWhite”) is positively correlated with the Trump swing. Although statistically significant, the fixed-effect is an order of magnitude smaller than that of our three main predictors. It is not that important a conditioner of the Trump swing.


What about income? Is it true, as the political scientists report, that Trump counties are actually richer? It is true that once we control for our three main factors, median income is positively correlated with the Trump swing. That’s congruent with results known from the surveys.

median-income.pngBut the statement must be qualified. Without controlling for other factors, median income is negatively correlated with the Trump swing (fixed-effect = -2.6%). The interpretation of these correlations is straightforward: Counties that swung to Trump are poorer than those that did not, although this income differential is more than fully accounted for by variation in population growth and college graduation rates. Recall that median income is highly correlated with both college graduation rate (r=0.67, p<0.0001) and population growth (r=0.50, p<0.0001). So Trump country is poorer, of course, but not as poor as we would otherwise expect it to be, given the education and demographic differentials.


These results should disabuse us of the notion that Trump’s election had little to do with people getting left behind—I drop the quotation marks on purpose. Trump is in the White House because large parts of the country are in serious trouble. People can see the decline of their communities with their own eyes. What is pissing them off is that coastal elites keep ignoring their trauma and focus their attention on creating a more inclusive country.

But what does this have to do with racism? More pointedly: Why does the breakdown of elite-mass relations, now manifest in the Trump insurgency, exhibit the symptoms that it does? Why do people in Trump country, whose trauma is real enough, blame immigrants and minorities? Part of the answer is that people in Trump country regard Boasian antiracism as the hegemonic ideology of coastal elites—as indeed it is. Of course, they don’t call it that; they call it political correctness instead. Resentment of coastal elites, although driven by all-too-real decline of situated communities, is thus expressed as a wholesale rejection of the hated elites’ self-congratulatory worldview.

What I have argued here is that Democrats, including elite political scientists, have misdiagnosed the catastrophe of 2016. If I am right, unless Democrats wake up to reality fairly soon, Trump is going to win again.

Postscript. Unweighted OLS changes nothing.


Post-postscript. Highlights from the next dispatch.

In effect, Trump is a message from Flyover Country for elites. Are American elites listening? Democrats in particular need to pay attention. It is Democrats who repaired elite-mass relations through the 20th century and thereby re-stabilized the system. They must do it again. In order to do so, they must abandon the idea that racism is the key to 2016. It is not. Widespread despair is the key to 2016.


29 thoughts on “Why Did Trump Win?

  1. “What is pissing them off is that coastal elites keep ignoring their trauma and focus their attention on creating a more inclusive country.”–What exactly are the coasts-supposed to do about the middle of the country? It’s fairly straightforward (if not easy) to fight for more inclusiveness. You pass and enforce anti-discrimination laws while beating the drum for inclusiveness in the public square.

    The middle of the country, by contrast, needs a complete economic makeover; one which many (most?) of the people blaming elites for their problems refuse to embrace. We can’t turn back the clock on globalization or automation. Even if we boosted manufacturing, our factories are never going to employ the number of people they used to. Coal is dead. No amount of government intervention is going to revive that industry. The only road forward is to embrace the future. That means high-tech, information, green energy, etc. But, these up and coming industries require an educated work force and infrastructure–two things the middle of the country has often given short shrift. If you keep doubling down on dying industries and refuse to raise taxes to fund education and the infrastructure new industries need then no one can help you.

    1. Is this picture of the natural rise and fall of industries quite right? Has regional polarization been driven by autonomous forces beyond human control? I would suggest otherwise. The evidence from manufacturing suggests that policy driven industrial concentration is just as important, if not more so, than automation and globalization. See my https://policytensor.com/2019/05/16/brenners-hypothesis-revisited-or-the-logic-of-discipline-in-us-manufacturing/. It can be reversed by a policy of deconcentration. Similarly, mandating the Fed to target wage growth can spread the productivity gains and, indeed, drive productivity growth. My point is that restoring broad based growth must be front and center of Democratic rhetoric and policy. Unless Dems learn to speak to Flyover Country, they are going to lose again.

    2. What makes you so certain that ethnic inclusion is a straightforward policy problem and regional economic reform an intractable one? That may seem like common sense given the recent priorities of liberal policy elites in the United States, but I don’t think a glance at the rest of the world or at American history would suggest that the former is simpler than the latter. New Deal liberals certainly had more luck with overhauling the economy than with ending Jim Crow.

      1. Hi NotPeerReviewed, where do you think I suggest that inclusion is straightforward as a policy problem compared to solving the problem of regional polarization? The Democrats aren’t doing much to fix systemic racism either. No serious solution is known. Likewise for the vanishing of broad-based growth, or even secular stagnation.

        There is reason to believe that we need fresh rules of the game, both for firms and everyday people. I have argued that a policy of industrial de-concentration can restore dynamism. Central banks should be mandated to treat subpar median blue collar wage growth as labor market slack. Running the economy hot for long is what is needed to bring inflation back as a signal of slack.

  2. Excellent analysis, but leaves out the massive voter suppression and outright cheating and ballot-destroying by the GOP and the massive defection of leftists to Stein or simply not voting. Both those seem at least as important from my analysis (I looked county by county at the returns) as any other factors.

  3. This is a very thoughtful and well researched article. Although I am not sure I agree with all of your conclusions and analysis, it has vastly more explanatory power than the typical “racism, racism, racism homophobia” diagnoses that is typically offered by the “Elites” to explain 2018, (I guess I should now add “Russia, Russia, Russia Ukraine…to the standard excuse list). I appreciate your honesty and willingness to make an effort to really understand the motivations of the Trump voters. I have to tell you though, they won’t listen. I do have one question for you, you write:

    In effect, Trump is a message from Flyover Country for elites. Are American elites listening? Democrats in particular need to pay attention. It is Democrats who repaired elite-mass relations through the 20th century and thereby re-stabilized the system. They must do it again.

    Can you tell me when and how the Democrats repaired elite-mass relations throughout the 20th Century? That would be an interesting read. I might have a question or two on your Boasian anti-racism article also. That was also very informative.

    1. Above all, FDR. But in general through the mid century, the hegemony of the Democratic Party was anchored on taking the problem of elite-mass relations seriously. The rapidity of class mobility helped, as did organized representation of working class interests, particular unions. But there was also a general accommodation of working class culture and recognition of elite responsibility. Nor was this confined to the United States. Across the Western world, the hegemony of social democracy through the mid century was based on accommodations and understandings in elite-mass relations. The systemic crisis of 1968-1983 undermined crucial stabilizers of the mid century system. But it was not until the 1990s that social democracy capitulated upwards. This pattern is homologous to mid-Victorian settlement in Britain, wherein the middle classes capitulated upwards to the landed classes and abandoned a potential alliance with the working classes.

      I am sure it is not lost on you that I use the language of elite-mass relations to use class analytically without the attendant baggage of Marxism.

      1. FDR…… I do not agree with your assessment of FDR, but your point is arguable. What I find particularly interesting about your reply is the following:

        ‘ “But there was also a general accommodation of working class culture and recognition of elite responsibility.” I would argue that throughout American History it wasn’t so much as a “general accommodation (by the elites) of working class culture…..” as it being the case that “working class culture” was the dominate (or hegemonic) culture. Elite culture certainly existed and was undoubtedly different than that of the working class, but for most of our history the elite class had no real power to impose their culture over the rest of society. If anything the working class tolerated (or “accommodated”) elite culture if and only if elite culture stayed in elite populations. The lavish , cosmopolitan and slightly hedonistic and decadent New York city life styles could be tolerated only in New York, not Omaha, or Spokane.

        It has only been very recently (say mid 90’s) that elite culture was able to challenge working class culture sufficiently to the point of actually overtaking and replacing it. However I see little, or any attempts at accomodation of working class culture. Instead, I see an attempt to completely replace and eliminate working class culture. Indeed this goes so far as to eliminate the possibility of any dissent (meaningful, and public) from this new emerging hegemony. This goes so far as to erase completely from our historical memory any trace of the old culture from all public spaces. And in my humble opinion, THIS IS WHY TRUMP HAPPENED.

        Very interesting discussion, and information that you have brought up. And thank you for clarifying your use of the term class. I did not suspect that you meant it in a Marxist way, but still….. it gets confusing what people mean by “class”. I tend to use working class and middle class as interchangeable. Because I think that they both share largely the same “culture”. But I am sure that others will disagree with me on that.

        1. I don’t agree that elites were not cultural pace setters through the 20th century. Although I would agree that elite-mass relations were much less hostile between FDR and Nixon. Sometimes they were quite warm. Indeed, at times so warm that I can see how you would think that they could be regarded as identical. But even during, say 1942-1968, the cultures of the elites and the masses were quite distinct. The United States was resolutely a class society even then. But from the 1980s onward, the weight of class, the valence of status, and the feeling of class oppression has intensified. Elite mass relations finally broke down when social democracy capitulated under the neoliberal onslaught. We can detect the crushing hegemony of Boasian antiracism from the 1990s precisely when elite-mass relations deteriorate dramatically. And they had been in secular decline since the 1970s.

          I really like this, although it is hyperbolic:

          “Instead, I see an attempt to completely replace and eliminate working class culture. Indeed this goes so far as to eliminate the possibility of any dissent (meaningful, and public) from this new emerging hegemony. This goes so far as to erase completely from our historical memory any trace of the old culture from all public spaces. And in my humble opinion, THIS IS WHY TRUMP HAPPENED.”

          The cultural assault you are talking about is the consequence of the rise of Boasian antiracism as the hegemonic ideology of the elite. Elites really do think that what they are doing is right and proper and moral. That it why they sound so condescending. Trump is not just uncouth but morally reprehensible; almost a Nazi. But more than that. Trump supporters are morally reprehensible too; they are by implication nearly as awful as Nazi sympathizers. At least, that’s what you think of you are “woke.” The key to the present impasse is that these beliefs are held genuinely by the elite and in good faith. It’s just that the masses never got the memo. No one gave them the plot. As far as they can tell, elites have been overbearing in their judgement and concerned solely with righting historical wrongs of American race relations. The 1619 project of the New York Times must seem like yet another escalation in this class war. Meanwhile, the trauma of blue collar communities can take a back seat. That’s why 2020 is about race.

  4. The problem with this diagnosis is that it ignores the actual policies proposed by Clinton and focuses on the distorted narrative promoted by the Right (“those snooty coastal elites think you’re all dumb hicks”). Her actual policies would have in fact benefited Flyover Country. There is hard empirical evidence, for example, about the impact of expanded Medicaid on health outcomes for lower-income individuals. The shame is that the Fox News megaphone chose to emphasize the exact message that would turn off Flyover Country — this supposed focus on anti-racism etc. (Which is undoubtedly part of the Democratic party, but hardly the whole story.)

    There is no question that Trump voters were motivated by fear and insecurity. However, the GOP is to blame for channeling those fears into xenophobia — successfully making, for example, immigration the top issue for many Republicans — and portraying Democrats as snooty commie elites who want to take away their guns.

    1. I think that you are missing the point of our esteemed hosts original post. Policy Tensor was addressing the question Why did Trump win? And his answer was basically that Elite Culture was / is ignoring the nascent rumblings of a very unhappy and increasingly vocal mass culture, (and Policy Tensor can correct me if I misstated his intentions in any way…) Trumps win had nothing to do with the minutia of any one policy fiscal or economic proposal. Hilary’s expanded Medicaid may or may not have been a good and beneficial thing to lower income individuals. I think that lower income individuals probably voted for Hilary anyway. But that really has nothing to do with the Elite / Mass culture divide.

      Progressives need to wrap their heads around this. Every time mass culture has expressed its displeasure with whatever the elites come up with next, the standard response from the Elites has been 1. call those resisting racists and backwards (see “bitter clingers” and “deplorables” and “dumb hicks”…..) And 2. offer some little trinket of questionable monetary value. If mass culture rejects the trinket, then claim that FOX NEWS misled the rubes in “fly over country” who just don’t know any better. At the same time they are doing this, they are attacking every institution and public expression of the old mass culture. And claiming that there is no such thing as a “culture war”. That that term is just “right wing propaganda”.

      Until the current dominate cultural hegemon realizes that it is not quite as culturally dominate as it thinks it is, we, as a nation are going to be at this impasse. And it will only grow more animated the longer it lasts.

  5. I think this is a contestable claim: “Did counties where Whites are declining as a percentage of the population swing to Trump? That would be the implication of the racial resentment thesis—at least in as much as prejudice is driven by locally-visible demography.”

    Isn’t it the case that that racial resentment and suspicion of outsiders is higher in places where there _isn’t_ a lot of immigration in? In other words, places where people know people of other races, after a certain level is reached, are (I thought) less likely to be racially hostile. I believe I saw that somewhere in the past year or so. Am I getting that wrong?

      1. Sorry I read you as saying the opposite: that the implication of the “racial resentment thesis” would be that whites who felt _locally_ besieged would react negatively. That’s how I read that statement above, esp the end about “prejudice is driven by locally-visible demography.” But as I read the “racial resentment theory” (such as it is), I read it as saying that the “threat” whites feel is more symbolic/abstract than actual, so that _actual_ contact with non-whites actually, over time, decreases racist animus, or at least makes it less operative in peoples’ voting. Maybe I’m being obtuse, but I thought that you were saying that “racial resentment” was “not that important a conditioner of the Trump swing.”

        1. Right. Well, the abstract racial resentment thesis is not testable — at least at this level of analysis. What I have documented is that counties that have a higher international migration rate, ie where foreigners are coming in, swung against Trump. This rules out one channel of the racial resentment thesis — that people are pissed out at foreigners for invading their communities. And, yes, the fixed-effects of the proportion of the populace that calls itself White and international migration rate are an order of magnitude smaller than my three main predictors. In other words, as much as it matters, it is a second-order correction term.

  6. The data you provide here provides at best vague support for the claims you’re making regarding racism as an animus for Trump supporters: that it’s an anti-elite, anti-pc resentment and that it’s a symptom and not a cause of Trump’s win. Demographic shift is only one racial agitation Mutz cites, and he doesn’t limit his consideration to its local instances. It’s you who’s assuming the importance of local trends and prioritizing them in your selection and interpretation of the data. (There’s a bit of circular reasoning going on.) The correlations you show here—Trump’s excellent performance in poorly-educated, opioid-addled regions shedding population—are all consistent with explanatory narratives with racism at its center (though I don’t believe those narratives are correct).

    1. The county level data does not allow me to test the racial resentment hypothesis. What is does allow me to test is a specific channel through which racial resentment may have affected 2016 — the idea that people don’t like their communities invaded for foreigners. I’ve shown that we can rule out that channel. Places with higher influx of foreigners are negatively correlated with the Trump swing.

      But the broader pattern suggests that the Dem diagnosis is at best epiphenomenal. Even if comfort with racialized discourse correlates with the voting for Trump, that’s a symptom not a cause.

      1. I don’t think prejudice is a primary cause, but I’ve seen no data that merits relegating it to epiphenomena. I’d be interested in reading what you have to share. Causation is, as you know,…

  7. I’ve argued my case at length. The interpretation I have offered is the only one consistent with the pattern I have documented. If you don’t buy it, that’s fine. But merely saying so isn’t going to change my mind. If you care to challenge it, at the minimum, engage with it. Tell me what I’m saying, and what you think I’m missing.

    1. Was this a response to me? Did I not engage with your argument in my original comment?

      Since, to reiterate, the evidence you provide only really speaks to a partial element of the racial dimension behind 2016, there are a lot of alternative interpretations consistent with your data. It may be the case, for example, that people are reacting to national trends as opposed to local ones—or simply to the mere fact of a black president. It may be that local depopulation and low educational attainment sensitizes people to these observations. It may be that racism and anti-elitism are independent sentiments rather than intertwined as you suggest here.

      Also, causation is of course of ultimate interest but, alas, notoriously elusive.

      1. It may be all these things but you’re totally ignoring the elephant in the room: countries that went for Trump are places that are in serious trouble; the bigger the trouble they are in, the greater the trauma, the higher the swing to Trump. The effect is more that big enough to account for the 2016 outcome. This is an important and original result. And it raises two questions. If, as I’ve shown, the pattern was already visible in 2012, then why did 2016 come as a shock? The interpretation I have offered is that elites are caught up in their own ideology. That’s why the false dawn of 2012, that’s why the misdiagnosis of 2016. If I am right, we’re in for another catastrophe in 2020.

        You seem to holding on fast to results from survey data. Yet, the results I have presented overwhelming suggest a very different interpretation.

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