Are Donald Trump Supporters Merely “Unhyphenated Americans”?

One of the most interesting puzzles of this election cycle for both academics and pundits alike has been trying to explain exactly who exactly are all these Donald Trump supporters in the GOP voting base. Answers have focused on a variety of possible answers, including demographics, personality characteristics, and racial/identity attitudes. There is some evidence that there may be another factor at play, however: “American” ancestral self-identification.

The U.S. Census Bureau regularly asks Americans a version of this question: “What is this person’s ancestry or ethnic origin? (For example: Italian, Jamaican, African Am., Cambodian, Cape Verdean, Norwegian, … and so on.)” While most Americans indicate ancestries originating in Europe, Africa, or Latin America, in the 2010 Census about 20 million people (or 6.5 percent of the population) indicated “America” or “United States” as their place of “ancestry or ethnic origin.” Most of these individuals are obviously not Native Americans, but rather white Americans who for one reason or another choose to report that their ancestors came from America. Some have referred to this group as “unhyphenated Americans” as they reject labels such as “German-American,” or “Irish-American.” (See here and here for more information.)

Scholars have offered a variety of causal factors related to this “unhyphenated American” phenomenon among white Americans including education, patriotism and national loyalty, Evangelical religious identification, or a perceived threat to American culture and identity. My own research (forthcoming in Social Science Quarterly) points to a strong influence of racial context and attitudes.

An examination of Census data reveals that the majority of these unhyphenated Americans are concentrated largely in the Southern and Appalachian regions of the United States:

Compare the map in the link above to the geographical distribution of Donald Trump supporters in the GOP electorate:


Of course, correlation is not causation and this possible connection is based entirely on aggregate data patterns making it impossible to conclusively link ancestral self-identification to voting patterns using only this information… but it is hard to ignore the similarities in the geographic concentration of unhyphenated Americans and Donald Trump supporters.

Donald Trump’s campaign slogan has is “Make America Great Again.” Perhaps this resonates with unhyphenated Americans who actively reject all non-American identities (even ancestral identities) and respond positively to his nativist, authoritarian rhetoric.

Note: this article was originally published in the Huffington Post; this version includes the graphics.

The 2016 Republican Primary: It’s Marco Time

One has to admit that the Republican primary race has been nothing if not interesting this last year.

The mainstream “political science” explanation of presidential party nominations goes something like this: party elites (elected officials, donors, party insiders, etc.) talk among themselves in the year before the primary elections and usually come to some kind of consensus pick among their party’s candidates. This is called the “invisible primary.” We can get a sense of who’s winning the invisible primary by looking at high-level endorsements from party elected officials. Voters then are usually pretty good at picking up on those elite endorsements (which generate media coverage) and then support tends to funnel accordingly. (See here, here, here, and here for more information.)

This model has done a pretty good job of explaining the Democratic race this year (where Hillary Clinton has dominated the invisible primary) but has not been as useful in explaining what has happened in in the Republican primary. For whatever reason, the GOP establishment elites pretty much declined to come to a consensus this time around. And Donald Trump happened. It will be interesting to see how this all plays out over the next few months.

My personal ideological and temperamental orientations originally led me to prefer more moderate, mainstream candidates like John Kasich or Jeb Bush. I also appreciated Rand Paul’s (from what I could tell) sincere focus on racial issues like criminal justice and police brutality. I also have always admired Paul’s ideological consistency and that he’s less inclined to blatantly pander than most politicians are.

I was also impressed with Marco Rubio early on while watching his one-on-one extended media interviews. When he’s not giving a stump speech or in a political debate he shows hints of a fairly nuanced worldview which I think is an advantage for political leaders.

At this point it’s looking like a three-way race between Trump, Cruz, and Rubio. It is possible (although looking increasingly unlikely) that Bush, Kasich, or Christie will pull an upset and come in a strong second or third in New Hampshire next week. But they might not. And many Republicans seem to find them to be far too moderate anyways.

Given the choice, then, between Trump, Cruz, and Rubio, I would recommend that my Republican friends throw their support behind Marco Rubio. (And I won’t waste precious minutes of my life making a case for why Rubio would be a better bet than Trump or Cruz, either electorally or as U.S. president, or for the sake of the country and planet Earth and human species.)

It is a strange political season indeed when Marco Rubio is perceived to be a “safer” mainstream Republican alternative for the presidency given his Tea Party-driven election to the Senate and ideological voting record, but stranger things have happened I suppose and such is the state of the modern Republican Party. Make no mistake, Marco Rubio would likely be a strong ideologue as president and given that the House of Representatives will likely be controlled by the Republicans in 2017, the only thing standing in the way of a Republican nirvana would be the Democratic use of the filibuster in the Senate (assuming that it’s not abolished by a slim GOP majority).

It’s true that Marco Rubio’s experience and resume leaves something to be desired, but so did Barack Obama’s in 2008 and I think he did about as well as any Democrat could have been expected to do given a similar set of circumstances. Thus, I don’t see this as a major impediment for Rubio who I perceive to have the skill set, temperament, and intelligence to potentially excel as U.S. president. I urge my Republican friends to support him in the primary campaign.


Bernie Sanders vs. Hillary Clinton on the role of money in politics

Last night provided a clear contrast between the two Democratic front-runners when it comes to the pervasive influence of money in politics. Bernie Sanders has staked his campaign (if not his entire career) on the assumption that money is the single most corrupting influence in the American political system and that many (if not most) of the woes of the working class are due to the influence of large, wealthy donors and special interests group in the political system. Hillary Clinton, on the other hand, is more measured in her critique of the role of money in politics and seems more willing to work in a mutually tolerant relationship with Wall Street than strictly against Wall Street.

Coming from a political science perspective, most of the research tends to indicate that money certainly matters in politics, but not nearly as much as people often assume. Bernie Sanders (and many/most Americans) assume a model that goes like this: Interest Group A gives to Politician B and so Politician B in turn supports policies favorable to Interest Group A. In contrast, much empirical evidence seems to indicate that the arrow often goes the other way: Politician B is already ideologically predisposed to support issues favorable to Interest Group A and so Interest Group A donates to Politician B to help that person get elected or reelected so that Politician B can continue to support those issues (which Politician B would likely do anyways even in the absence of the donations from Interest Group A). (For more information and detail on this argument, I highly recommend listening to the first segment of a recent podcast by Vox’s The Weeds:

I emphasize that political scientists do not argue that money makes no difference in politics, but rather it matters a lot less than is often popularly perceived to be the case.

For the political science academic community, the cause of polarization and governmental dysfunction is due less to the influence of money and special interests and more to the driving effect of political polarization and party sorting in contemporary American politics. In short, this perspective argues that government is paralyzed because the voters that elect that government are paralyzed themselves between starkly contrasting views about the appropriate role of government, religion, and morality in American society. Two very different groups of voters go to the polls every election and elect politicians who support two very different pictures of what politics should be. No wonder they can’t agree on anything. (More on this here:

My heart sympathizes strongly with Democrats who support Bernie Sanders and his call for a political revolution in the United States. I understand the appeal and where they are coming from. Ultimately, though, there is less evidence to support Sanders’ diagnosis of the problems with the political system. Because he fundamentally misunderstands the causes of the problems (or at the very least discounts the strong effect of other clear causes), it makes me skeptical as to how effective he would be in fostering solutions for the problems.

Hillary Clinton, on the other hand, seems to me to have a clearer understanding of the strong role that identity and ideology play in driving political behavior in both the American public and elected government. Thus, I believe that she would ultimately be more effective in achieving her goals if elected president than Bernie Sanders would be. True, a Hillary Clinton presidency would be a win for the status quo and the “establishment,” and again, my heart sympathizes with the sentiment among Sanders supporters who desire the revolution. But a century of voting behavior and a strong scholarly consensus gives us very, very little reasons to expect that the revolution is coming in the near future. The House of Representatives will almost certainly be controlled by Republicans in 2017, making it necessary for a Democratic president to have to cut deals and bargain with a Republican congress just as President Obama has had to do the last several years.

Hillary Clinton would probably get Democrats some of what they want. Bernie Sanders would likely get them close to nothing.


My quick take on the 2016 Iowa Caucus results

Since people are asking me about it today… here’s my quick take on the Iowa Caucus results last night:

The “political science” perspective is that one key way that Iowa Caucus results matter is in driving the media narrative that emerges the week afterwards leading up to the New Hampshire primary. Objective results matter less than results compared to expected results. Those who over-perform relative to expectations get a boost from both media and donors which gives them an additional boost going into the NH primary while those who under-perform suffer from less media attention and fewer donors than they were getting before. (See Why Iowa, chapters 7-8, see also Vox’s write-up.)

Based on this I make the following quick observations:

Marco Rubio is probably the biggest winner from last night: over-performing relative to expectations in the range of 5-8%. I expect that he’ll get a boost in media coverage and that this will translate into a boost in his New Hampshire performance, putting him in a good position for the rest of the primary campaign.

Donald Trump is probably the biggest loser, as all the media hype was about him possibly winning Iowa. By losing (even though he came in a strong second), he under-performed relative to expectations (by about 7-ish%) and this may translate into a lower performance in New Hampshire than he might have otherwise had if he had won Iowa.

Ted Cruz’s performance is maybe a draw, perhaps a slight advantage. He was polling well in Iowa and did about as well as expected in the media narrative leading up to last night’s Caucuses. The real question is whether he can do well in northeast New Hampshire or whether this was his high-water mark like Rick Santorum in 2012 or Mike Huckabee in 2008.

On the Democratic side, I’d say it’s roughly a draw between Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton, both objectively and relatively, with perhaps a slight edge to Sanders. Hillary Clinton was expected to win by 3-5% leading up to the Caucuses and she ended up barely squeaking out a win of 0.29%. Given that O’Malley dropped out last night, I think that Sanders will pick up most of his 2-ish% in New Hampshire and likely win by a respectable margin. The real test for Sanders will be whether he can come in close in more diverse states like South Carolina and Nevada. If he gets trounced in those two states it’s likely an easy path for Hillary Clinton to the nomination.

Back on the Republican side, my hunch is that it will soon boil down to either a drawn-out Rubio-Trump contest or a Rubio-Cruz contest, depending on which way things shake out in the next few primaries… unless either Jeb Bush, Chris Christie, or John Kasich can somehow edge out a very strong second or third showing. If not, it’s Rubio or bust for Republicans who want to win this fall.

2015 Boyle County Exit Poll: comparison of gubernatorial voting responses

Our exit poll showed that of those who answered the question on the survey, 48.8% reported voting for Bevin, 47.1% reported voting for Conway, and 4.2% reported voting for Curtis. According to the Secretary of State’s website, 54.7% of Boyle County voters voted for Bevin, 40.1% for Conway, and 4.6% for Curtis. That’s a difference of 5.9%, 7%, and 0.4%, respectively, and in a direction that over-states support for Conway and understates support for Bevin.

There are a few possible (and not mutually exclusive) explanations for this:

  1. It is possible that the 1.9% of voters who did not complete the question on the survey were mostly Bevin voters.
  2. It is possible that some Bevin voters indicated on the survey that they voted for Conway, despite voting for Bevin in actuality.
  3. It is possible that Bevin voters were less likely to agree to take the survey than Conway voters.

My strong hunch is that #3 is the most likely explanation, especially given that the 2014 Exit Poll had a 3-6% bias in favor of Democratic candidates (but not non-partisan candidates), although it is not possible to definitely prove this.

We attempt to correct for these types of effects by using a sample weighting procedure, which is a standard procedure used to correct for differences in how different demographic groups respond to the initial invitation to take the survey.

It should also be noted that a 6-7% difference is still not terribly far off from the standard accepted margin of error in the polling industry of 3% for most national surveys and professional polling firms. And I’ll also note that our survey was ultimately more accurate than the plethora of professional and partisan telephone surveys taken statewide in the lead up to the election.

This is an interesting puzzle to consider going forward: why are Democrats slightly more willing to take the Exit Poll survey than Republicans in Boyle County, Kentucky elections? I welcome ideas from interested parties.

Boyle County, KY voting patterns in the 2015 gubernatorial race

The 2015 Boyle County Exit Poll asked voters about their opinions on six issues that were discussed in the Kentucky gubernatorial campaign. Here are voting patterns for the major two-party candidates among those with each policy preference:

  Bevin Conway
Agree with Kim Davis’s decision to refuse marriage licenses (32.6% of total) 84.2% 13.2%
Agree on raising the minimum wage to $10.10/hour (64.3% of total) 32.5% 63.9%
Agree on random drug tests for recipients of public benefits (72.3% of total) 62.0% 33.5%
Agree on EPA regulation of the coal industry (56.2% of total) 25.9% 70.2%
Agree on Gov. Beshear’s Medicaid expansion decision (61.9% of total) 31.3% 65.4%
Agree on Gov. Beshear’s implementation of KYNECT insurance exchange (55.2% of total) 23.1% 73.5%

For example, among those who agree with Governor Beshear’s expansion of Medicaid, 31.3% of them voted for Matt Bevin and 65.4% of them voted for Jack Conway. It is interesting that on several of these issues, a sizable number of people who prefer Conway’s position on the issue voted for Matt Bevin (and logically vice versa).

Of course, issue preferences are not the only basis for voting decisions. Factors like partisanship and demographics also make a difference. Thus, I used a “multivariate regression” analysis to see what difference each factor made in predicting a vote for Matt Bevin, controlling for the effect of every other factor. Here are the results:

Republican partisanship 59.5%
Obama disapproval 47.9%
Kentucky’s economy is getting worse 32.7%
Disapproval of KYNECT health exchange 32.1%
Conservative ideology 31.7%
Agree with Kim Davis on marriage licenses 25.0%
Agree with random drug tests for welfare recipients 23.1%
Disagree on minimum wage increase 21.6%
Female 16.2%

(For statistics nerds, these are the minimum to max predicted probabilities of each factor in predicting a vote for Bevin in a logistic regression model. Presented coefficients are statistically significant at p<0.05.)

This is telling us that, controlling for all other factors, being a Republican was the strongest factor in predicting a vote for Matt Bevin in Boyle County: Republicans were 59.5% more likely than Democrats to do so. Disapproval of President Obama was the second-highest factor: those who disapprove were 47.9% more likely than those who approve to vote for Bevin.

It seems that the campaign issues of the KYNECT health exchange, same-sex marriage licenses, random drug tests for welfare recipients, and minimum wage increases all made a difference as well, although to a lesser extent than partisanship and opinions toward Obama.

It is also interesting to note that opinions on the EPA/coal and Medicaid did not matter when controlling for these other factors, nor did demographics like age, income, church attendance, or education. Also, Tea Party supporters were no more or less likely to vote for Bevin once other factors like partisanship and ideology were controlled for.

In sum, it seems that basic political factors like partisanship and attitudes toward President Obama were the key factors in explaining gubernatorial voting patterns in Boyle County. This suggests that state-level elections in Kentucky are following wider trends in becoming more nationalized. Assuming these results are generalizeable to the state as a whole, it seems that Kentucky voters are linking their voting preferences at the state and national level to a stronger degree than once was the case.

The Drew Curtis effect in Boyle County voting patterns

According to the 2015 Boyle County Exit Poll, 48.6% of those who voted for Drew Curtis for governor in Boyle County would have picked Matt Bevin as a second choice, and 51.4% would have picked Jack Conway as a second choice.

Also, Curtis voters were a more moderate group when it came to specific issue preferences:

  • 78.7% of Curtis voters disagreed with Kim Davis’s refusal to issue marriage licenses, compared to 90.7% of Conway voters and 41.4% of Bevin voters.
  • 56.3% of Curtis voters agree that Kentucky’s minimum wage should be increased to $10.10/hour, compared to 90% of Conway voters and 44.2% of Bevin voters.
  • 55.4% of Curtis voters tend to agree with the “EPA’s regulation of the coal industry” compared to 86.8% of Conway voters and 31.8% of Bevin voters.
  • 52.2% of Curtis voters agreed with Governor Beshear’s expansion of Medicaid under the ACA, compared to 90.7% of Conway voters and 42.4% of Bevin voters.
  • 48.9% of Curtis voters agreed with Governor Beshear’s implementation of the KYNECT insurance exchange, compared to 93.8% of Conway voters and 28.9% of Bevin voters.

Drew Curtis voters were also slightly less likely to have incomes over $50K/year (52.6% compared to 66.2% of Bevin voters and 69.3% of Conway voters).

Otherwise there were few discernible political or demographic correlates of voting for Drew Curtis instead of one of the major two-party candidates.

This suggests that (in Boyle County, at least) Drew Curtis voters were not predominantly Republicans or Democrats, further suggesting that his candidacy did not ultimately help or hurt either Conway or Bevin’s chances of winning. The lack of any clear demographic or political patterns for his supporters also suggests that he pulled in a diverse group of supporters – a true “independent” coalition.