Political scientists analyze the role of race and religion in presidential politics

Donald Trump’s 2016 election victory surprised many Americans who had seen projections from pollsters and other election predictors that Hillary Clinton would be the winner. On October 8, the Center for Diversity, Inclusion, and Belonging (CDIB) convened political scientists John Sides, William R. Kenan Jr. Chair and professor at Vanderbilt University, and Michael Tesler, assistant professor of political science at University of California, Irvine, to explore how the candidates’ stances on issues of race and religion influenced the 2016 election, and how those trends might come to bear on the outcome of the 2020 presidential election.

In a conversation moderated by CDIB executive director David Glasgow, Sides and Tesler argued that Clinton’s and Trump’s platforms on immigration, travel requirements for predominantly Muslim countries, policing, and unconscious bias, among other issues related to race and religion, were more prominent in the 2016 campaign than the same issues had been in the 2008 and 2012 presidential campaigns. Based on interviews that Sides and Tesler conducted for their 2018 book, Identity Crisis: The 2016 Presidential Campaign and the Battle for the Meaning of America, which was co-authored by Lynn Vavreck, the political scientists said that these issues were especially important to the group of largely white voters who voted for Barack Obama in 2012 and Trump in 2016.

For example, Sides noted, many who voted for Obama in 2012 held negative views on loosening citizenship requirements and police reform. However, those issues were not overt aspects of Obama’s campaign, he said. Trump’s anti-immigration, pro-policing platform helped motivate these voters to support the Republican candidate in 2016, Sides said.

Sides predicted that in 2020 the widespread bipartisan response to the killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis police, and subsequent calls for greater racial equity, might galvanize more white Americans in swing states to vote for Joe Biden, who Sides said has presented a clearer commitment to racial equity.

Tesler also noted that in 2016, both Clinton and Trump were historically unpopular candidates—but Trump was more successful among voters who reported disliking both candidates, a portion of the population Tesler calls “double negatives.” In 2020, Tesler says, “the double negatives are breaking decisively for Biden.”

Watch full video of their discussion here:

Posted October 26, 2020