In the week since the election of Donald Trump, many citizens and political scientists are trying to understand both the underlying causes of the win while thinking about the implications for the citizenry and policy going forward. Here, we do not offer a full accounting of the election, but rather, outline three major themes about voters from this election and make some reading recommendations. These books and articles can both help illuminate this election as well help us think through what we need to know more about as a discipline.
The Enduringness of Partisanship
For all the many ways that this election was unusual, it was quite usual in the importance that partisanship play in people’s vote. As in most elections, the people who decided to turn out on Election Day 2016 identified with a political party and chose candidates based on this political identity. According to exit polls, upwards of 89% of Democratic voters voted for Hillary Clinton and 90% of Republican voters voted for Donald Trump. Politics is complicated and abstract, most people pay little attention to it most of the time, and rely on the relatively easy cue of partisanship to tell them which candidate to choose. Partisanship is a long-standing, durable identity that people develop through socialization and is now more central to social identity in a political environment that is more deeply polarized by party than in the past. Partisanship allows citizens to make relatively easy choices in the voting booth, but also shapes how they filter information about not only the candidates and the state of the world. Partisans see the economy and the state of the world as better when their preferred party is in the White House and worse when they do not hold political power.
Here, it is worth revisiting some classics on the formation and maintenance of partisanship, including The American Voter (1960), where Angus Campbell, Philip Converse, Warren Miller, and Donald Stokes use survey data that are now the American National Election Study to show the importance of partisanship as an enduring identity that shapes our views of particular candidates and policies.
Philip Converse’s 1964 chapter, “The Nature of Belief Systems in the Mass Public” on the lack of ideology and ideological constraint in the public reminds us that while many voters have a partisan identity that does not always translate into a well-formed or coherent ideology. Strong partisans, then, are likely to engage in a variety of ways to reconcile disagreements between their partisanship and issue positions, meaning that partisans are more likely to switch their positions on issues to conform with their partisanship than the other way around. Here, we’d recommend Gabriel Lenz’s book Follow the Leader: How Voters Respond to Politicians’ Policies and Performance and Milton Lodge and Charles Taber’s The Rationalizing Voter.
While we will not weigh on the issue of mass polarization here, there is ample evidence that party loyalty and straight-ticket voting has increased dramatically in recent decades. Gary Jacobson provides an overview of this trend in a recent article in the Journal of Politics (“It’s Nothing Personal”). Alan Abramowitz and Steven Webster similarly highlight a growing connection between the results of presidential elections and the results of House and Senate elections (“The Rise of Negative Partisanship and the Nationalization of US Elections in the 20th Century,” Electoral Studies). They find that from 1960 to 1980, Republican House candidates won just under 60 percent of the districts where Republican presidential candidates did well. By 2012, party-line voting was so strong that Republicans had won 95 percent of contests in Republican-leaning districts while Democrats won 93 percent of contests in Democratic-leaning districts.
Abramowitz and Webster suggest the rise in partisan behavior reflects a change in the nature of partisan identity in American politics, what they call the rise of “negative partisanship.” Negative partisanship develops when the partisan identities of voters are bound up within other salient social and political identities, detailed further below. The effect is that supporters of each party view those in the opposing party as very different from themselves in terms of their social characteristics and values. Possibilities for split-ticket voting diminish as partisan divides increase, even when the party nominee is as unconventional as Donald Trump.
The dialogue and behavior of political elites are certainly contributing to these trends. Frances Lee’s new book Insecure Majorities: Congress and the Perpetual Campaign examines how competition for government control compels members of Congress to promote their own party’s image and attack that of the opposition party. (See also Sean Theriault’s Party Polarization in Congress and Barbara Sinclair’s Party Wars for additional insights into institutional changes that have spurred elite polarization.) Matthew Grossman and David Hopkins’ recent book Asymmetric Politics: Ideological Republicans and Group Interest Democrats is helpful for grappling with differences between the two parties and the distinct policy agendas they are likely to embrace.
Social Identities Matter more than Policy
Partisanship is perhaps the most important social identity that people use to help guide their vote choice, but this election showed the power of other identities to which political scientists are just beginning to pay serious attention. Christopher Achen and Larry Bartels’s new book Democracy for Realists argues forcefully that it is identity, rather than policy, that drives political behavior.
Two intertwined identities that were activated and important this election cycle were rural consciousness and white identity. Two recent books, Katherine Cramer’s, The Politics of Resentment: Rural Consciousness in Wisconsin and the Rise of Scott Walker and Arlie Russell Hochschild’s Strangers in their Own Land: Anger and Mourning on the American Right help explain the importance of rural identity and how it undergirds anti-elite sentiment and opposition to government programs. Both Cramer and Hochschild use ethnographic methods to listen carefully to how people talk about their economic and social situations and their isolation from a government they believe has ignored and abandoned the places they call home.
Race is a consistent theme in American politics and attitudes about racial groups shape the types of policies that Americans support or oppose. Philip Klinkner and Rogers Smith’s The Unsteady March: The Rise and Decline of Racial Equality in America, Richard Valelly’s The Two Reconstructions: The Struggle for Black Enfranchisements, and Daniel Tichenor’s Dividing Lines: The Politics of Immigration Control in America provide historical perspectives on how race and immigration structure our parties, institutions, and public policy. There is an extensive literature on attitudes about out-groups, such as racial resentment, or the belief that African-Americans undercut basic norms of hard work and are thus less deserving of government help. For examples, see Donald Kinder and Lynn Sanders book Divided by Color: Racial Politics and Democratic Ideals and Martin Gilens Why Americans Hate Welfare: Race, Media, and the Politics of Anti-Poverty Programs. There is also a literature about the development and mobilization of racial identities into politics, for example, Michael Dawson’s Behind the Mule on African-American political identity and Lisa Garcia Bedolla Fluid Borders: Latino Power, Identity, and Politics in Los Angeles on Latinos in American politics.
One identity that was clearly more prominent in this election cycle is white identity. One of the consequences of the presidency of Obama has been a consolidation of identities of what it means to be “white”. Changing demographics in the country, increase in immigration from non-European sending countries and the election of an African-American president are perceived to be a threat to the social hierarchy and have created a sense of loss and an identity that can serve as a mobilizing force. Marisa Abrajano and Zoltan Hajnal’s book White Backlash: Immigration, Race, and American Politics, argues that fears about immigration shape white American’s identities and these concerns drive whites away from the Democratic party and toward the Republicans. Ashley Jardina’s work argues that white identity is an important determinant in political behavior. One of the other questions raised by the overtness of appeals to white identity is whether the norm of racial equality that drove racial appeals to be more implicit in previous elections has now been eroded for good. See Tali Mendelberg’s The Race Card: Campaign Strategy, Implicit Messages, and the Norm of Equality for a discussion of implicit messages.
Gender continues not to be a potent force in driving women toward solidarity; gender was a major theme in the election (both masculinity and what it means to be a female leader) but wasn’t enough of a threat to make white women abandon their partisanship to vote on gender solidarity. Despite some expectations that 2016 would produce the largest gender gap in recent history, the gap between the percentage of men and women voting for the winning candidate remained virtually unchanged from that in 2012 (10 percentage points in 2012 and 11 points in 2016). Kathleen Dolan’s work—Voting for Women: How the Public Evaluates Women Candidates–has long suggested that variables such as party and incumbency matter more for voting behavior than candidate gender, which we saw in this election, as well.
Although there are well-known examples of sexism in American elections (men shouting “Iron My Shirt at Hillary Clinton in 2008”, for instance), the evidence is mounting that women candidates do not suffer different electoral fates than their male counterparts. Deborah Brooks’ He Runs, She Runs: Why Gender Stereotypes Do Not Harm Women Candidates also challenges the conventional wisdom that women candidates are held to a different standard than male candidates. A recent article in Perspectives on Politics by Danny Hayes and Jennifer Lawless shows that candidate sex does not affect media coverage or voter attitudes toward candidates, and that partisanship, ideology, and incumbency weigh more heavily in the eyes of journalists and citizens alike. Of course, there is not enough data to systematically examine whether voters are biased against female presidential candidates. It is quite possible that something gendered is going on at the highest rungs of the political ladder, but with an N of 1, it is too early to know.
The Emotional Substrates of Politics
Emotions get citizens involved in politics – compelling people to pay attention, to leave their house on election day, to contribute their time and their money to campaigns. Anxiety, enthusiasm, and anger are some of the most common emotions in political life (see George Marcus, Michael MacKuen, and W. Russell Neuman’s Affective Intelligence and Political Judgment). These emotions affect what people know about politics, how they make decisions, and what policies they prefer. Election 2016 focused on multiple types of anxiety – economic anxiety, racial anxiety, immigration anxiety, anxiety about the character of both major party candidates. Anxiety leads people to seek protection, and immigration anxiety, which was a major theme of Donald Trump’s campaign tends to benefit the Republican party, since the Republicans are seen as better on the issue of immigration (see Anxious Politics: Democratic Citizenship in a Threatening World by Bethany Albertson and Shana Kushner Gadarian).
While anxiety can shape opinion, it is anger and enthusiasm that affect the decision to participate in politics. Campaigning for Hearts and Minds by Ted Brader demonstrates that enthusiasm is a motivator of turn-out, but enthusiasm for Clinton did not appear to have enough steam, at least in the Midwest states where changes in turn-out may have turned the tide for Trump. One of the most prominent emotions this election cycle was anger – anger at elites, anger at the press, anger at China for trade practices, anger at immigrants. Anger is a powerful motivator of action – in “Election Night’s All Right for Fighting,” Nicholas Valentino and colleagues show that anger can bring people to the polls, and in 2016 anger appears to have driven many citizens who had not voted recently to the ballot box.
There are many more themes from this election that deserve more attention, including the alignment and potential realignment of the political parties, polarization, populism, and authoritarianism. Americanists have much to learn from our colleagues who study the rise of right-wing parties in comparative politics as well as our colleagues in sociology, history, and psychology to understand both the decisions of voters in November as well as some of the consequences of that vote in the months and years to come.
About the Authors: Shana Kushner Gadarian is associate professor of political science at the Maxwell School, Syracuse University. She studies American politics with a focus political behavior, political psychology and political communication. She is co-author of Anxious Politics: Democratic Citizenship in a Threatening World .
Danielle Thomsen is an assistant professor of political science at the Maxwell School, Syracuse University. She studies American politics, U.S. Congress, and gender and politics. Her book, “Opting Out of Congress: Partisan Polarization and the Decline of Moderate Candidates” is forthcoming with Cambridge University Press.