Politics, Social Science, US Election

Serwer Error: Misunderstanding Trump Voters

A little over a month ago, the Atlantic published a long article by senior editor Adam Serwer entitled “The Nationalist’s Delusion.” The essay provoked considerable discussion and MSNBC’s Lawrence O’Donnell described it as “mandatory reading.” Serwer challenges the narrative that Trump’s unlikely electoral triumph was propelled by the economic estrangement of white working- and middle-class voters.

Rejecting this account, Serwer instead holds pervasive and deep-seated – if implicit – animosity towards non-white minorities primarily responsible for Trump’s election. To borrow a neologism from MSNBC’s Van Jones, the 2016 election outcome was just a case of ‘whitelash.’ Concerns over lax immigration policies, the flight of blue-collar jobs, Islamic terrorism (and the political obscurantism surrounding the subject), and a stifling culture of political correctness were all simply a pretext for the maintenance of white supremacy and racial inequality. A key data point Serwer draws on to support this claim is Trump’s s ‘sweeping victory’ across all income categories of white voters (emphasis added):

Trump defeated Clinton among white voters in every income category, winning by a margin of 57 to 34 among whites making less than $30,000; 56 to 37 among those making between $30,000 and $50,000; 61 to 33 for those making $50,000 to $100,000; 56 to 39 among those making $100,000 to $200,000; 50 to 45 among those making $200,000 to $250,000; and 48 to 43 among those making more than $250,000. In other words, Trump won white voters at every level of class and income. He won workers, he won managers, he won owners, he won robber barons. This is not a working-class coalition; it is a nationalist one.

In a recent article for Foreign Policy, the neoconservative writer and analyst Max Boot credited Serwer, and these figures specifically, for helping him to finally acknowledge his own ‘white privilege.’ The only problem is that the figures are incorrect. I’ve been studying the reputable American National Election Studies (ANES) 2016 election survey for almost a year now, so this was relatively easy to check. Below is a tabulated output of the ANES results. For ease of interpretation, the winning vote margin is highlighted in bold.

Note: margin of error listed in parentheses. Each was calculated using 95% confidence intervals.

As we can see, Serwer’s claim begins to unravel as we surpass the middle-income bracket. From $175,000 and onward it’s not even close: non-Hispanic whites voted for Clinton by sizeable margins (18.5 percent and 6.2 percent). If we include Hispanic whites (40.4 percent of whom voted Trump), the spreads are even wider (21.3 percent and 10.32 percent). This is consistent with the working/middle-class ‘revenge against the elites’ thesis, but incompatible with that of an across-the-economic-board defence of white supremacy.

Three objections might be made at this point. The first is that the upper-income sample sizes are comparatively small (hence the wider margins of error). Although ANES employs random sampling that, in theory, should ensure representativeness, a larger sample size is always preferable. Second, one might argue that ANES’s breakdown of the income groups does not exactly correspond with those mentioned in Serwer’s article (there is, for example, no $200k category). While true, that hardly supports Serwer’s claim that Trump bested Clinton among whites of every income category. One need only point to the $250k+ bracket, which was included in Serwer’s figures and which shows Clinton winning pretty handily. Finally, how can I be so sure that it isn’t the ANES data — rather than Serwer’s – that are wrong?

For some reason Serwer does not provide a source for his data in his article. So I emailed him and discovered that it came from the Edison Research national exit poll, which he kindly attached. Given the well-known weaknesses of this kind of data (self-selection, incomplete demographic data, exclusion of early voters, and so on) and the availability now of much more complete and reliable datasets, I was puzzled that Serwer opted to rely upon election day polling. Still, I couldn’t assume a priori that the Edison data got it wrong. Cross-replication, preferably on a larger sample, was needed. So I turned to Harvard’s massive (N=64,600; roughly half of which voted) Cooperative Congressional Election Study (CCES) for a closer look, and my suspicions were confirmed:

Note: margin of error listed in parentheses. Each was calculated using 95% confidence intervals.

As in the ANES dataset, we once again find that white support for Trump trends markedly downward as we leave the lower to middle income brackets. Beyond the $100,000 mark, white voters increasingly turn out for Clinton. At $200k and onward, Clinton beats Trump by comfortable margins – 7.5 percent and 16.6 percent, respectively. For some perspective, I’ve also tabulated the exit poll figures cited by Serwer:

As we can see, whereas the ANES and CCES results are substantively similar, the Edison exit poll Serwer cites doesn’t come close. Given how far they fall from the CCES’ margins of error, the statistical probability that the Edison figures are accurate is exceedingly low. (In fact, they even fall outside of a wider margin of error derived from a 99 percent confidence interval. This means that the odds that the Edison figures accurately reflect the true distribution are less than 1 in 100.)

The reason for this glaring discrepancy isn’t immediately clear. My best guess is that the Edison data — gathered in real time from those who agreed to be interviewed after exiting the voting precincts (hence the risk of self-selection bias) — oversampled white Trump voters. Again, given the availability of alternative data sources, it’s perplexing why Serwer relied on an exit poll. But what’s even more bemusing is that Serwer didn’t bother to crosscheck it against other datasets. This is suggestive of journalistic laziness and more than a hint of confirmation bias.

But Serwer’s distortions don’t end there. In foregrounding racial resentment, he downplays the importance of other variables that help account for Trump’s election win. First, it should be noted the degree of anti-minority sentiment among Trump voters appears to be overstated. According to the ANES out-group feeling thermometer data (scored along a 0-100 scale), Trump voters, on average, evaluated Blacks (mean=63.8) and Hispanics (mean=64.4) in the ‘warm’ direction. By comparison, the mean ratings for both of these groups among Clinton voters were 75 and 73.9, respectively—warmer, but not as much as one might expect.

Second, while Serwer blames Trump’s presidency on racial resentment, one could just as easily point the finger at ‘PC fatigue’. For example, a recent Cato study found that 58 percent of Americans believe “that the political climate today prevents them from saying things they believe.” And whereas 73 percent of Republicans and 58 percent of independents endorsed this statement, a majority of Democrats (53 percent) did not. As this relates to the election, my own research — which I’ll soon be submitting for publication — finds that even after controlling for various measures of prejudice (sexism, hatred of minorities, racial resentment, etc.), issue-attitudes (economic discontent, immigration, refugees, etc.), and ideological orientations (authoritarianism, social dominance orientation), opposition to political correctness significantly predicts voting for Trump. This finding is consistent with the results of a recent experimental study, which found that priming ‘PC norms’ elicited greater support for Trump (and greater opposition to Clinton) irrespective of political ideology. Likewise, I found that even among Clinton voters, greater opposition to PC linearly coincided with greater positivity (albeit still negative) towards Trump.

The ANES data also suggests that anti-immigration attitudes are more informed by cultural and economic anxieties than anything having to do with skin color. For example, support for decreasing immigration was most strongly correlated with assimilationist attitudes (immigrants should learn English, adopt American customs etc.) and the belief that immigrants take away jobs but only weakly correlated with self-reported importance of ‘white identity’ and negativity towards ‘people of color.’ What is more, whereas the former two variables remain statistically significant in a fully specified regression model, the latter do not.

A similar pattern holds with respect to the Syrian refugee issue. Once again, assimilationist attitudes and perceptions of cultural threat are the strongest predictors of opposition to admitting refugees. The importance of ‘being white,’ by contrast, was not found to be statistically significant. The primacy of ‘cultural incompatibility’ perceptions accords with a recent experimental study on attitudes towards Muslims in Europe. And such cultural anxieties aren’t limited to whites, either. In fact, when we exclude the middle or ‘neutral’ value category, a majority of African Americans (61.97 percent) and Hispanics (59.1 percent) oppose admitting refugees as well.

All told, the evidence suggests that Trump’s election had more to do with economic disquiet, the fear that America is trending towards a culturally balkanized identitarian society (i.e. political multiculturalism), and a climate of PC that discourages voicing of concerns about either. We can debate whether these concerns are reasonable. But the hypothesis that they’re simply a guise for white bigotry and the continuance of white supremacy finds no support in the present data. In the end, it’s almost as if Serwer’s explanatory model conveniently includes only those variables that absolve the Left of any culpability in the Trump phenomenon.

But why does any of this matter? Well, it matters insofar as Serwer is promulgating a polarizing description of reality that rests on erroneous data and gross oversimplification. Worse, his version of events is now being promoted to millions of Americans as “mandatory reading.” Genuine racial hostility undoubtedly motivated a minority subset of Trump voters. But as a liberal alienated by the toxic identitarian political direction of our country, I worry that these broad-brush ‘whitelash’ interpretations allow the Left to demonize millions of Americans and dismiss their concerns. Should this continue, the appeal of the Democratic Party will forever be confined to cosmopolitan bubble-land.

Correction: The tabulated ANES and CCES results have been amended to apply the sample weights. References to the data in subsequent paragraphs have also been updated.

Zach Goldberg is a PhD candidate in Political Science at Georgia State University. You can follow him on Twitter @ZachG932