For months after the 2016 election, the media obsessed over how white economic anxiety drove Donald Trump’s victory. Today it’s clear that race and immigration were far bigger factors than money worries. And it turns out those issues were also behind vote switching.
As the name suggests, vote switching is when a person votes against the political affiliation they identify with. It usually happens when voters feel like their party (or a candidate their party nominates) doesn’t align with their personal interests. Vote switching occurs in every election. But a recent study found that for white voters in 2016, attitudes about other races and immigration were the biggest predictor of changing votes.
The study, conducted by by UCLA PhD candidate Tyler Reny and other researchers, concluded that white people who voted for Barack Obama in 2012 and Donald Trump in 2016 held conservative views about race and civil rights. The opposite was true of white Mitt Romney-turned Hillary Clinton voters, who were found to hold more liberal views about race.
Given the parties and candidates involved, these results might not be all that surprising. Of course racially conservative whites would favor Donald Trump. But even if the findings are obvious, they could provide insight into the voting landscape of the 2020 election.
To understand how racial attitudes and vote switching will affect future elections, it helps to look backwards. In the late 1930s, the Democratic Party began to split between Southern “Dixiecrats” and more left-leaning, civil rights-supporting liberals. It was the first white political realignment based on racial attitudes and resentment.
“A lot of southern Democrats started to switch their votes at the national level for Republican candidates,” Reny says. “The Democratic Party they once knew was no longer the party that represented their interests.”
But these voters still identified as Democrats despite switching their votes, and stayed Democrats for years to come. That’s how deeply their political ideology was embedded. It wasn’t until roughly a generation later—when the Civil Rights movement was fully underway—that actual party switching began taking place.
“It took a number of elections before voters started to realize that maybe they didn’t belong in the Democratic Party at all,” Reny says. “But that switch from Democrat to Republican eventually happened with their children, not with the older voters who already had strong Democratic identities.”
It’s too soon to tell if there’s a significant racial realignment underway in our current political climate. Reny’s study explored voting records rather than shifts in partisanship. But historically, vote switching precedes partisan change, and race is as prevalent in American elections as ever. Barack Obama’s 2008 and 2012 presidential campaigns were intentionally deracialized. Having a black man at the top of the Democratic presidential ticket was theoretically enough to signal the party’s racial liberalism. But in 2016, Hillary Clinton had to be more explicit about racial issues to mobilize the Obama coalition and to combat Donald Trump. With the Trump administration’s racist rhetoric and policy throughout his first term in office, it’s clear race will be a primary political factor for years to come.
Vote switching could continue during the 2020 election and beyond. But there isn’t much more room for racial attitudes to shift. Racial conservatism among Republicans is at an all-time high, and appears to be deepening. Meanwhile, Democrats are becoming more and more racially liberal over time, in part to distance themselves from the modern GOP. Unless there’s a massive increase in voter participation in 2020, Reny can’t see much more of a shift in partisan racial attitudes.
“In terms of the existing, energized voters that regularly come out to vote, I think racial attitudes and partisanship are pretty much set.”