After the 2016 Republican primary campaign, many argued that “economic anxiety” is what motivated a plurality of Republican voters to support Donald Trump.
The theory goes as follows: after the financial crisis, many Republican voters felt “left behind” during the economic recovery resulting in a sense of desperation, ultimately driving them buck the establishment (embodied in the fifteen other Republican presidential hopefuls) and cast their ballots for Donald Trump, a political outsider.
Many scholars have proposed alternative theories to explain the Trump phenomenon. For example, the 2018 book Identity Crisis argues that the most reliable predictors of support for Donald Trump in the 2016 primary were anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim sentiment. Others have argued that Trump’s nomination was simply an accident — the byproduct of a winner-take-all primary system, Trump’s monopoly on media coverage, and primary opponents unwilling to throw punches on the debate stage until the Trump was already on track to win the nomination.
My purpose of citing “economic anxiety” theory here is not to provide a refutation; indeed, I will almost certainly dedicate several other posts to Trump’s 2016 primary and general election victories. Instead, my purpose is to shed light on the direction of causality implicit in this theory, as well as why I think it is completely backwards.
The direction of causality implicit in the “economic anxiety” theory is that our perceptions of the economy drive our voting behavior. Put simply, when the economy seems to be doing poorly, voters punish the party they believe to be at fault. Similarly, if the economy seems to be doing well, voters will support the party they believe to be responsible.
What this theory gets wrong, however, is that our perceptions of the economy are inextricably shaped by our political allegiances. When the opposing party is in charge, we tend to view their policies in a less charitable light in order to justify voting for our own party. Conversely, when our party is in charge then our minds will perform mental gymnastics to justify any apparent failures or magnify any accomplishments. According to this alternative view, our perceptions of the economy are downstream of our political ideologies and party preferences.
This is precisely what is revealed when looking at Cooperative Congressional Election Study Data from 2006-2019. One of the “common content” questions asked to participants each year is whether they believe the economy has improved over the previous 12 months. Participants are given 5 possible responses: that the economy has gotten much better, that the economy has gotten somewhat better, that the economy has stayed about the same, that the economy has gotten worse, that the economy has gotten much worse, or that they are not sure.
What makes this question particularly useful is that participants are asked their thoughts on the economy over the previous 12 months. Therefore, if perceptions of the economy drove voting behavior, then we would not expect major swings in approval of the economy when an administration of the opposite party enters the White House. Instead, the opposite occurs.
The following graph divides the electorate up by race and party preference from 2006-2019. Independents who “lean” towards one side or another were classified according to the party towards which they lean. Therefore, while more Americans presently identify as Independents than with either major political party, the “true” independents displayed below are a small share of the electorate.
Among Democrats, we see a massive spike in 2009 — the year Obama entered the White House — in the share of voters who believe that the economy improved over the previous 12 months. Similarly, in 2017 this share plummeted despite Obama-era economic trends largely continuing along their existing trajectories under Donald Trump.
Among Republicans, this trend is even more pronounced. Although their views on the economy drop precipitously in the final two years of the Bush administration due to the financial crisis, it is noteworthy that (1) they viewed the Bush-era economy to be far stronger than Democrats and Independents, (2) after Obama takes office, Republicans are less likely than Democrats and Independents to agree that the economy is improving, and (3) when Donald Trump takes office, Republicans’ approval of the economy skyrockets. This third observation is particularly relevant in 2017, as respondents were surveyed before the passage of the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act, Trump’s signature economic accomplishment. The 2018 midterms provide further evidence that individuals view the economy through the lens of party preference, as there is a notable drop in approval of the economy among Republicans in 2019 after losing the House of Representatives.
The graphs for White and Hispanic Independents look more like what one would expect if voting behavior was downstream of perceptions of the economy: there is a drop after the financial crisis, followed by a slow and gradual increase over time. Even if the “traditional” direction of causality held true for “true” independents, this is ultimately a small slice of the American electorate.
This “reverse” direction of causality is not merely visible when grouping voters by ideology. Given the emphasis this blog places on religious political behavior, here is my obligatory breakdown of Protestant and Roman Catholic voters by race, where we can see a similarly pronounced trend.
For most, the figures for Black and White Christians are unsurprising. The figures for Hispanic Americans, however, may seem counter-intuitive to some, especially given the proportion at which they support the Democratic party. That said, these graphs should be viewed in light of (1) this subset excludes the roughly 20% of Latinos who are not religious, who are disproportionately on the political left, as well as (2) Latinos households have experienced particularly strong income gains over the last several years.
The above images provide yet another data point refuting the conventional wisdom lying behind “economic anxiety” theory. It seems that voters didn’t support Trump because they were “left behind” by the Obama-era economy. Rather, for many Republican voters, all they needed to perceive a strong economy was a Republican in the White House.
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