The Role of Economy in Trump’s Support

A recent article in the New York Magazine attempts to debunk the misleading implications claimed by the Washington Post regarding a new study from Gallup, and in turn, adds a few misleading implications of its own.

The study itself fails to draw attention to what makes the Trump voters stand out from other Republican voters.  This is critical since the selection into categories “favor Republicans” and “favor Democrats” is not random:  Republican voters, generally, ARE different from the Democratic voters.  By pooling all the voters and treating support for Trump as a single categorical variable, same as support for any other candidate, the study mistakes characteristics of generic “Republicanness” for predictors for support for Trump.  This is the case for the singular implication drawn by both WaPo and New York Magazine, and, in fact, by the study’s author itself:  that Trump’s supporters are not economically badly off.  But the tables themselves show that they ARE in fact worse off economically, for Republicans, at any rate:  they are better off than supporters for either Clinton or Sanders, but they are significantly worse off than supporters for all other Republicans except Ted Cruz (Table 5–which is confusing since support for Trump is the baseline category.  It would have been far better to use twoway ANOVA with contrasts rather than probit for this analysis.).  On the other hand, they are not necessarily more likely to be self-employed (a generic trait for the average Republican voter).  Trump voters are, surprisingly, LESS likely to be retirees than supporters for either of Democratic candidates,  certainly more likely to be union members–at least compared to other Republicans (although much less than for the Democrats), somewhat younger on average (but with a peculiar distribution) than Clinton’s supporters (but with a larger contingent of older cohort–which shows up when the age squared variable is included–which implies heavier tails:  Trump supporters include both youngish and oldish people in larger proportions than Clinton.).  All in all, there is a LOT more nuance in the numbers presented by the paper than meets the eye, and a better methodological choice (say, employing some of the clever techniques proposed by Andy Gelman) would have been handy.

All in all, the New York Magazine article gets it right:  the support for Trump is a rather nuanced phenomenon and it should be approached as such.  They are, on average, rather similar to the Republican voters, but different in significant aspects–which would be indicative of a heterogeneous Republican faction that draws support from many people who are not typical Republican voters in addition to more customary ones.  In other words, as I’d been labeling it, a Bud Light coalition–who may be drawn to it by a mixture of cheap price, lousy taste, cheapish ads, and other heterogeneous reasons but not necessarily a single unifying reason as the supporters for craft beers might be.  Economic reasons are an important reason for many of them, as must be racism, both hard and soft varieties for different people.  But it is not the conventional left-right scale that defines them and forcing them to the procrustean bed of the received wisdom is a dangerous mistake.

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