In Defying the Odds, we talk about the social and economic divides that enabled Trump to enter the White House. . The update -- recently published --includes a chapter on the 2018 midterms.
National surveys now routinely find a huge falloff between the share of Americans satisfied with the economy and the percentage that approve of Trump's performance as President. And new academic research has concluded that attitudes about the economy were much less powerful in driving voters' decisions in 2016 and 2018 than their views about fundamental cultural and social changes, particularly race relations and shifting gender roles.
Each of these dynamics underscores how the economy's role in politics may be shifting as the basis of each party's political coalition has evolved. Increasingly, the parties are bound together less by class than by culture. As I've argued, the fundamental dividing line between the parties has become their contrasting attitudes toward the underlying demographic, cultural and economic changes remaking American society.
Brian Schaffner, a Tufts University political scientist, says a bad economy can still threaten a president and his party, as it did when the financial crash helped Barack Obama breeze to the presidency after President George W. Bush's two terms in 2008. But a good economy, he believes, may no longer be enough to dislodge the entrenched battle lines over these underlying cultural preferences.
"One thing you see in the two most recent presidencies, the Obama and Trump presidencies, is neither of them get much credit for good economies," Schaffner said in an interview. "They had different ceilings (of support), but they both had ceilings."
In a study of the 2016 election using data from the Cooperative Congressional Election Study, a large-scale pre- and post-election national survey, Schaffner and two co-authors found that economic satisfaction and dissatisfaction was much less important in predicting support for Trump or Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton than attitudes about race and gender relations. The more likely voters were to believe that racial discrimination is not a systemic problem and that women complaining about sexism were actually seeking unfair advantage over men, the more likely they were to support Trump. (That pattern was as powerful among women as it was among men.)
In a paper published last month, Schaffner found these trends intensified in the 2018 election.