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How Trump could ignore social conservatives … and win

- July 8, 2016
(Erika P. Rodriguez For The Washington Post)

As we head into the Republican convention in Cleveland, Donald Trump is talking about his two priority issues: fighting terrorism and halting immigration. For those who’ve watched the Republican Party over the past decades, equally notable is what Trump is not talking about: the social and cultural issues through which past Republican nominees have courted the party’s religious voters.

How has Trump so successfully emphasized terrorism and immigration, while largely ignoring social conservatives’ most important issues? The answer lies partly with voters’ changing priorities.

The post-WWII shift in values – and the recent shift back

In the 1970s, political scientist Ronald Inglehart began to study changes in the political and social concerns of citizens in industrialized countries. He found that the rapid post-World War II economic development led the then-young generations to develop fundamentally different values from their parents. With increased economic security, those voters stopped emphasizing economic security and safety — or what Inglehart called “materialist” values — and started focusing on quality-of-life concerns, which Inglehart termed “postmaterialist” values.

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Inglehart measured these against the following categories of national goals: 1) maintaining order, 2) giving people more say in making important government decisions, 3) fighting rising prices and 4) protecting freedom of speech. He defined “materialists” as those who rank numbers 1 and 3 (maintaining order and fighting rising prices) as their top two priorities, and “postmaterialists” as those who rank numbers 2 and 4 (more say in government decisions and freedom of speech) as their top two priorities.

In particular, postmaterialist values include concerns about religion — for instance, prayer in public schools or the display of religious symbols in the public square — and social and cultural issues such as abortion and same-sex marriage.

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The chart below shows the percentage of materialists and postmaterialists in the U.S. population in 1995, 1999, 2006 and 2011. In the first two years, there were few materialists, and they dipped to 9.5 percent in 1999. But that percentage more than doubled between 1999 and 2006, and climbed still more in 2011, while the percentage of postmaterialists dropped. And that’s true across demographic segments: whites, those with high school degrees only, and those with at least some college education.



Of course, we cannot say for certain why that shifted. We can speculate that the 9/11 terror attacks and the accompanying economic slowdown might have contributed greatly to the increased materialism in 2006. And presumably, the severe global recession of 2009-2010 caused the increased interest in material security in 2011. That has probably continued to increase since 2011, as we’ve seen the rise of the Islamic State and more terrorism threats.

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The accompanying shift in Republican priorities

How has that affected the Republican nomination contest? We examined Republican and Republican-leaning independents’ priorities by using data from the American National Election Studies 2016 Pilot Study, administered in January 2016. The study offered respondents a list of 21 issues and asked them to rank the four that mattered most as they chose a political candidate. The chart below shows the top 10 issues along with the percentage of those who ranked it among their top four priorities.


Three major points stand out.

First, the list is dominated by issues that fit nicely into Inglehart’s definition of materialist concerns: terrorism and homeland security, economic growth and immigration. What’s more, these are the issues that Trump has emphasized.

Second, the Republican establishment’s priority economic issues, such as national debt and taxes, rank farther down the list — much farther, in the case of taxes.

Third, moral and cultural issues barely sneak up onto the list, with “morality and religion” coming in a lowly 10th. Abortion comes in at 14th place, with only 12 percent of this group ranking it in their top four most important concerns. While some have characterized the Republican electorate as angry, an equally accurate description appears to be fearful, particularly of terrorism.

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Donald Trump’s top two issues match Republican voters’ priorities 

So how were Trump and Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) able to separate themselves from the rest of the Republican field? The charts below help explain by showing the top five concerns for Trump supporters, Cruz supporters, and supporters of former Florida governor Jeb Bush, Ohio Gov. John Kasich and Sen. Marco Rubio (Fla.).

Here’s what becomes clear: The priority issues of Trump and Cruz supporters are much closer to those of Republican and Republican-leaning independents as a whole than are the priorities of Bush, Kasich and Rubio supporters.

For example, the second group doesn’t rank immigration as a priority at all, while terrorism makes the top four for only a third of them.

camobreco fig 3

CAMOBRECO FIG 4CAMOBRECO FIG 5The evidence suggests that Trump and Cruz were successful in part because they emphasized Republican and Republican-leaning voters’ top priorities. Terrorism is by far their most important priority. While 42 percent of Cruz supporters ranked it as a top-four priority, 55 percent of Trump supporters did so — a figure almost identical to that of the entire Republican and Republican-leaning electorate.

Trump may have been able to separate himself from Cruz in part because Republican voters were much more concerned with terrorism than with the social issues that Cruz emphasized. Notably, Trump’s evangelical Protestant supporters are primarily those who do not attend church regularly.

Social conservatives seem to have preferred Cruz over Trump. More than twice the percentage of Cruz supporters as Trump supporters ranked abortion and morality and religion as among their top-four priorities. But even Cruz’s supporters didn’t often rank these issues in their top four. Only 18 percent included morality and religion there, and only 12 percent included abortion.

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What does this mean for future Republican contests?

It’s too soon to predict whether this shift in priorities is a temporary blip or a long-term trend. Certainly, Republican lawmakers continue to emphasize abortion and similar issues. Republican legislatures have recently passed laws restricting abortion and trying to limit the effect of the Supreme Court decision legalizing same-sex marriage.

But these new laws have apparently gotten a collective shrug from much of the Republican electorate. Trump’s rise may be a sign of the priorities to come.

John F. Camobreco is associate professor of government at Christopher Newport University. 

Michelle A. Barnello is associate professor and chair of the government department at Christopher Newport University. Her research focuses on women and politics in U.S. states.