Explaining the Trump victory: An overview of an active academic literature

Papers theorizing and explaining the 2016 U.S. presidential election outcome.
A file with BibTeX entries is provided here.

The academic literature increasingly suggests that economic insecurity among white voters was not an important driver of Trump support

Economy (micro-level evidence)

A surprising result based on a battery of personal-economic questions: Clinton voters “report[ed] more economic distress than Donald Trump voters” (Griffin and Sides 2018). They also report that “white Americans without a college degree report a lower level of [economic] distress than college-educated black and Hispanic Americans”. We also know that:

The economy as a contextual variable

A negative or deteriorating state of voters’ communities, however, is associated with Trump support (among white voters):

The economic populism theory: On the campaign trail, Trump sounded like an economic progressive; “[his] promises to increase employment by improving trade deals and removing unauthorized immigrants could resonate in an era when employment levels for working age white men have declined, as might his calls for massive infrastructure spending and the jobs that would create” (Manza and Crowley 2017).

A case for the importance of racial identity

Sides, Tesler, and Vavreck (2017): Voting was driven by “how [voters] felt about those who were different from them”. Moreover, it was “the centering of both campaigns on issues that tapped into Americans’ racial, ethnic, and social identities and attitudes.” They show that group attitudes predicted vote choice better in 2016 than in prior elections: “White voters’ attitudes toward African Americans were … more strongly related to their preferences in the Clinton-Trump contest than they had been to preferences in the general elections pitting Obama against McCain in 2008, and against Romney in 2012”.

Analyzing CCES data, Schaffner, MacWilliams, and Nteta (2018) report that “moving from the most acknowledging of racism to the most denying of racism was associated with a 60-point increase in support for Trump.”

Engelhardt (2019) reports that “[i]n 2016, the most racially resentful Whites were on average about 45 percentage points more likely than the least racially resentful to support Donald Trump over Hillary Clinton.”

But did Trump activate racial attitudes or just benefit from them?

One paper skeptical of the popular activation hypothesis is Enns (2018): “the results from May 2015 suggest that those who expressed the most racial animus in surveys were already predisposed to support any Republican candidate”. On the other hand, Trump may have encouraged anti-immigrant sentiment: “[t]hose who previously supported Trump became more likely to support building a border wall” (Enns, 2018, panel data evidence). In addition, Trump’s rhetoric appears to have moved Democrats in a pro-immigration direction (but parties were already polarizing by racial attitudes before 2016).

Partisan alignment by views on race: “While there was a time when racially resentful White partisans could be found in both parties—thereby diluting their impact by 2016, ethnonationalism had moved into partisan alignment” (Manza and Crowley, among others). See also Engelhardt (2020), Schaffner (2020a), and Schaffner (2020b).

Immigration attitudes predicted vote-switching:

See also Garand, Qi, and Magaña (2020), Wright and Esses (2018), and Hooghe and Dassonneville (2018).


Local diversity

But Hill, Hopkins, and Huber (2019) consider the possiblity that “despite its disparate local impacts, immigration may be a symbolic, nationalized issue whose effects do not depend on local experiences”. They report evidence based on precinct-level data from 7 states, including key battle-ground states, and do not find evidence that “influxes of Hispanics or noncitizen immigrants benefited Trump relative to past Republicans, instead consistently showing that such changes were associated with shifts to Trump’s opponent.”

Anti-Muslim attitudes

Negative views of Muslims were highly prognostic of the vote in 2016 (Lajevardi and Abrajano 2019; Sides 2017), including in the primaries [Tucker et al. (2019); Levchak:2019be].


Sexism and views on women’s role in society were also predictive of vote choice (Stewart, Clarke, and Borges 2019; Bracic, Israel-Trummel, and Shortle 2019; Cassese and Barnes 2018; Glick 2019; Knuckey 2018; Valentino, Wayne, and Oceno 2018).

Other work

Insights from psychology

A key paper about voter misperceptions is McDonald, Karol, and Mason (2020): “many Americans are unaware that he was born into great wealth. This misperception increases support for Trump, mediated through beliefs that he is both empathetic and good at business.”

Big-picture papers

Among some big-picture papers that I would recommend are: Jacobson (2017), Dickinson (2018), and Lewis-Beck and Quinlan (2019).

Baccini, Leonardo, and Stephen Weymouth. 2021. “Gone for Good: Deindustrialization, white voter backlash, and US presidential voting.” American Journal of Political Science 115 (2): 550–67.

Bilal, Usama, Emily A Knapp, and Richard S Cooper. 2018. “Swing voting in the 2016 presidential election in counties where midlife mortality has been rising in white non-Hispanic Americans.” Social Science & Medicine 197 (January): 33–38.

Bracic, Ana, Mackenzie Israel-Trummel, and Allyson F Shortle. 2019. “Is Sexism for White People? Gender Stereotypes, Race, and the 2016 Presidential Election.” Political Behavior 41 (2): 281–307.

Bucci, Laura C. 2017. “White working-class politics and the consequences of declining unionization in the age of Trump.” Politics, Groups, and Identities 5 (2): 364–71.

Carnes, Nicholas, and Noam Lupu. 2021. “The White Working Class and the 2016 Election.” Perspectives on Politics 19 (1): 55–72.

Cassese, Erin C, and Tiffany D Barnes. 2018. “Reconciling Sexism and Women’s Support for Republican Candidates: A Look at Gender, Class, and Whiteness in the 2012 and 2016 Presidential Races.” Political Behavior 41 (3): 677–700.

Dickinson, Matthew J. 2018. “Explaining Trump’s Support: What We Saw and Heard At His Campaign Rallies.” The Forum 16 (2): 171–91.

Engelhardt, Andrew M. 2019. “Trumped by Race: Explanations for Race’s Influence on Whites’ Votes in 2016.” Quarterly Journal of Political Science 14 (3): 313–28.

———. 2020. “Racial Attitudes Through a Partisan Lens.” British Journal of Political Science, January.

Enns, Peter K. 2018. “Clarifying the Role of Racism in the 2016 U.S. Presidential Election: Opinion Change, AntiImmigrant Sentiment, and Vote Choice.” Working Paper, no. Presented at APSA 2018 (September).

Fan, Maoyong, and Anita Alves Pena. 2020. “Decomposing US Political Ideology: Local Labor Market Polarization and Race in the 2016 Presidential Election.” Journal of Economics, Race, and Policy 96 (2): 189.

Ferguson, Thomas, Benjamin I Page, Jacob Rothschild, Arturo Chang, and Jie Chen. 2020. “The Roots of Right-Wing Populism: Donald Trump in 2016.” International Journal of Political Economy 49 (2): 102–23.

Freund, Caroline, and Dario Sidhu. 2017. “Manufacturing and the 2016 Election: An Analysis of US Presidential Election Data.” PIIE Working Paper, May.

Garand, James C, Dan Qi, and Max Magaña. 2020. “Perceptions of Immigrant Threat, American Identity, and Vote Choice in the 2016 U.S. Presidential Election.” Political Behavior 52 (4): 959.

Glick, Peter. 2019. “Gender, sexism, and the election: did sexism help Trump more than it hurt Clinton?” Politics, Groups, and Identities 7 (3): 713–23.

Green, J, and Sean McElwee. 2019. “The Differential Effects of Economic Conditions and Racial Attitudes in the Election of Donald Trump.” Perspectives on Politics 17 (2): 358–79.

Griffin, Robert, and John Sides. 2018. “In the Red.” Democracy Fund Voter Study Group, September.

Grimmer, Justin, and William Marble. 2019. “Who Put Trump in the White House? Explaining the Contribution of Voting Blocs to Trump’s Victory.” Working Paper, December.

Hill, Seth J, Daniel J Hopkins, and Gregory A Huber. 2019. “Local demographic changes and US presidential voting, 2012 to 2016.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 116 (50): 25023–8.

Hooghe, Marc, and Ruth Dassonneville. 2018. “Explaining the Trump Vote: The Effect of Racist Resentment and Anti-Immigrant Sentiments.” PS: Political Science & Politics 51 (03): 528–34.

Jacobson, Gary C. 2017. “The Triumph of Polarized Partisanship in 2016: Donald Trump’s Improbable Victory.” Political Science Quarterly 132 (1): 9–41.

Knuckey, Jonathan. 2018. ““I Just Don’t Think She Has a Presidential Look”: Sexism and Vote Choice in the 2016 Election*.” Social Science Quarterly 100 (1): 342–58.

Lajevardi, Nazita, and Marisa Abrajano. 2019. “How Negative Sentiment toward Muslim Americans Predicts Support for Trump in the 2016 Presidential Election.” The Journal of Politics 81 (1): 296–302.

Lewis-Beck, Michael S, and Stephen Quinlan. 2019. “The Hillary Hypotheses: Testing Candidate Views of Loss.” Perspectives on Politics 17 (3): 646–65.

Manza, Jeff, and Ned Crowley. 2017. “Working Class Hero? Interrogating the Social Bases of the Rise of Donald Trump.” The Forum 15 (1): 3–28.

———. 2018. “Ethnonationalism and the Rise of Donald Trump.” Contexts 17 (1): 28–33.

McDonald, Jared, David Karol, and Lilliana Mason. 2020. ““An Inherited Money Dude from Queens County”: How Unseen Candidate Characteristics Affect Voter Perceptions.” Political Behavior 42 (January): 915–38.

Miller, Jennifer A, and Tony H Grubesic. 2020. “A Spatial Exploration of the Halo Effect in the 2016 U.S. Presidential Election.” Annals of the American Association of Geographers 13: 1–16.

Monnat, Shannon M, and David L Brown. 2017. “More than a rural revolt: Landscapes of despair and the 2016 Presidential election.” Journal of Rural Studies 55 (October): 227–36.

Morgan, Stephen L. 2018. “Status Threat, Material Interests, and the 2016 Presidential Vote.” Socius: Sociological Research for a Dynamic World 4 (1).

Morgan, Stephen, and Jiwon Lee. 2018. “Trump Voters and the White Working Class.” Sociological Science 5: 234–45.

Mutz, Diana. 2018. “Status threat, not economic hardship, explains the 2016 presidential vote.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 115 (19): E4330–E4339.

Newman, Benjamin J, Sono Shah, and Loren Collingwood. 2018. “Race, Place, and Building a Base: Latino Population Growth and the Nascent Trump Campaign for President.” Public Opinion Quarterly 82 (1): 122–34.

Ogorzalek, Thomas, Spencer Piston, and Luisa Godinez Puig. 2019. “Nationally poor, locally rich: Income and local context in the 2016 presidential election.” Electoral Studies 67: 102068.

Reny, Tyler T, Loren Collingwood, and Ali A Valenzuela. 2019. “Vote Switching in the 2016 Election: How Racial and Immigration Attitudes, Not Economics, Explain Shifts in White Voting.” Public Opinion Quarterly 83 (1): 91–113.

Rothwell, Jonathan, and Pablo Diego-Rosell. 2016. “Explaining Nationalist Political Views: The Case of Donald Trump.” Working Paper, November.

Schaffner, Brian F. 2020a. “The Heightened Importance of Racism and Sexism in the 2018 US Midterm Elections.” British Journal of Political Science 82 (September): 1–9.

———. 2020b. The Acceptance and Expression of Prejudice during the Trump Era. 1st ed. Cambridge University Press.

Schaffner, Brian F, Matthew MacWilliams, and Tatishe Nteta. 2018. “Understanding White Polarization in the 2016 Vote for President: The Sobering Role of Racism and Sexism.” Political Science Quarterly 133 (1): 9–34.

Sides, John. 2017. “Race, Religion, and Immigration in 2016: How the Debate over American Identity Shaped the Election and What It Means for a Trump Presidency.” Democracy Fund Voter Study Group, June, 1–23.

Sides, John, Michael Tesler, and Lynn Vavreck. 2017. “How Trump Lost and Won.” Journal of Democracy 28 (2): 34–44.

Stewart, Marianne C, Harold D Clarke, and Walter Borges. 2019. “Hillary’s hypothesis about attitudes towards women and voting in the 2016 presidential election.” Electoral Studies 61 (October).

Tucker, Patrick D, Michelle Torres, Betsy Sinclair, and Steven S Smith. 2019. “Pathways to Trump: Republican Voters in 2016.” Electoral Studies 61 (October): 102035.

Valentino, Nicholas A, Carly Wayne, and Marzia Oceno. 2018. “Mobilizing Sexism: The Interaction of Emotion and Gender Attitudes in the 2016 US Presidential Election.” Public Opinion Quarterly 82 (S1): 799–821.

Womick, Jake, Tobias Rothmund, Flavio Azevedo, Laura A King, and John T Jost. 2018. “Group-Based Dominance and Authoritarian Aggression Predict Support for Donald Trump in the 2016 U.S. Presidential Election.” Social Psychological and Personality Science 10 (5): 643–52.

Wright, Joshua D, and Victoria M Esses. 2018. “It’s security, stupid! Voters’ perceptions of immigrants as a security risk predicted support for Donald Trump in the 2016 US presidential election.” Journal of Applied Social Psychology 49 (1): 36–49.