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How political science helps explain the rise of Trump: Most voters aren’t ideologues

- March 2, 2016

Donald Trump’s success in the Republican presidential primaries — especially after last night’s Super Tuesday contests — has flummoxed many political observers, including many (though not all) political scientists. This has led to glee and schadenfreude among some commentators.

The notion that “political scientists are dumbfounded” mainly relies on the fact that Trump’s rise appears to contradict a single work of political science, a book called “The Party Decides.” That book argued that during the period from 1980-2004, elites within the broader party network influence presidential nominations by working to coordinate on a candidate. Clearly, as one of the authors of this book, Hans Noel, wrote yesterday, a Trump nomination is not consistent with this argument.

But in fact, there is a great deal of other political science research that helps us understand Trump’s success. So even though Trump’s success was hard to predict in advance, it can certainly be understood better in light of decades of scholarship. This is the first of three non-smug posts on the subject.

The argument in four words: Most voters aren’t ideologues.

Trump’s success seems puzzling on its face because so many of his positions seem out of step with Republican Party orthodoxy. The economist Tyler Cowen suggested that Trump’s success should lead us to conclude that “Republican voters are less conservative, less ‘Tea Party,’ and less libertarian than many people had thought.”

In political science, the idea that ordinary Americans may not actually be orthodox ideologues is well-established. It arguably dates back to one of the field’s most influential essays—written by Philip Converse over 50 years ago.

Converse wrote about “belief systems,” or how people organize (or don’t organize) their political beliefs. Ideologies like liberalism and conservatism provide one way of doing this by telling voters what goes with what. For example, liberalism means opposing the death penalty and supporting abortion rights. Conservatism means the opposite.

However, after analyzing survey data from the 1950s, Converse found that the public was largely “innocent of ideology.” When asked their likes and dislikes about the political parties and presidential candidates, relatively few used ideological concepts or terminology. The majority could not define terms like “liberal” and “conservative” or could define them in only in vague terms.

Moreover, people’s views on various political issues didn’t “go together” the way that liberalism or conservatism would predict. Knowing people’s view on one issue didn’t really help predict their view on another issue. This was particularly true among voters with less formal education — exactly the group that has been most attracted to Trump.

Since Converse’s essay, this basic finding has not really changed. In a reevaluation of Converse’s work based on 2000 data, a team of political scientists found that although a larger group used ideological concepts when describing the parties and candidates, this was still a small minority of voters (20 percent, compared to 12 percent in the 1950s data).

Similarly, recent work by James Stimson and Christopher Ellis (discussed here) as well as Sunshine Hillygus and Todd Shields has found that it is common for voters to have political views out of step with the mainstream of their party.

In particular, Ellis and Stimson show that it is self-identified conservatives who are particularly prone to this because so many of them take liberal positions on key questions like the size of government. They find that this group — “symbolically conservative” but “operationally” liberal — actually comprises a larger share of the electorate (nearly 25 percent) as of 2008 than it did in 1974.

One of us (Sides) demonstrated this in 2012, showing that even likely Republican primary voters tended to favor maintaining or increasing spending on a range of government programs.

David Broockman has noted something similar: “Most Americans are simply not ideologically consistent enough that ideological labels such as “conservative,” “liberal” or “moderate” accurately describe them.” Again, this is particularly true among those voters with less formal education or less interest in politics.

In other words, there have always been voters, and especially Republican voters, whose views would make them susceptible to a heterodox candidate like Trump. What has changed isn’t voters, but the choices they’ve been given.

Heterodox candidates usually struggle to succeed because the broader party network won’t support them. But this year, with so many candidates and so little party coordination, and with Trump dominating news coverage and thereby transmitting his message widely, Republicans who haven’t quite adopted every plank of the party platform now have their own candidate.

It is not surprising, then, that Trump has risen to the top of the polls despite being unpopular with Republicans who have conventionally conservative views on economics. Douglas Ahler and Broockman as well as one of us (Tesler) have made this argument.

Here’s another piece of evidence. In a November YouGov/Economist poll, respondents were asked whether government spending on four areas (health, education, roads and infrastructure) should be increased, decreased or kept the same. We combined these questions into an overall measure of support for government to see how it is related to support for Trump:

Graph by Michael Tesler
Graph by Michael Tesler

There are two important takeaways. First, Trump does significantly better (15 points) among those who want spending increased rather than decreased.  Second, the numbers at the bottom show there are far more Republicans who want spending increased on these issues than decreased.

In other words, there are a lot of conflicted conservatives and Trump is winning them. Most voters aren’t ideologues, including most Republicans. Now these voters have someone to vote for.

Part 2 of this series will follow tomorrow.

Michael Tesler is assistant professor of political science at UC Irvine, co-author of “Obama’s Race” and author of the forthcoming “Post-Racial or Most-Racial? Race and Politics in the Obama Era.”