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How Twitter got a big new study on Trump’s supporters mostly wrong

First Published      Last Updated May 18 2017 11:36 am

It was racial and cultural resentment, not economic woes, that drove the white working class to vote for President Trump.

That was the conclusion prominent Democrats, conservative writers and political journalists drew from a major new survey published last week on the views of the white working class. Some even said the argument that Trump's voters had economic reasons to back him was just a cover story for uglier motivations.

The debate about Trump supporters' motivations has practical implications for battered Democrats, who — out of power in all three branches of the federal government and marginalized in state houses and governors' mansions nationwide — are desperately trying to figure out how to rebuild their party.

If white, working-class Trump supporters were motivated by economic anxiety, then the party could make inroads with an economic agenda that appeals to them. On the other hand, if it were a question of race and culture, those voters would be extremely unlikely to join Democrats' progressive, multiracial coalition.

The new data is "useful for debunking myths and narratives — particularly the ubiquitous idea that economic anxiety drove white working-class voters to support Trump," wrote Emma Green in the Atlantic, which published the study with the Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI). "When these voters hear messages from their president, they're listening with ears attuned to cultural change and anxiety about America's multicultural future."

Even critics of that conclusion agreed that the study attributed Trump's success to racial anxiety. "The ⅛PRRI⅜-Atlantic survey is just one of the latest attempts to assure liberals and leftists that Trump supporters are unsympathetic," wrote the National Review's Michael Brendan Dougherty.

But according to one of the study's authors, to claim that economic anxiety does not matter to Trump's white, working-class supporters is, at best, an oversimplification.

"We aren't saying that," said the author, PRRI's Dan Cox. "Obviously, there's a lot more to understanding this group, to appreciating the challenges that they're going through."

Why did so many read the study differently?

Some of it, undoubtedly, is a product of the high stakes for the Democratic Party. Democrats see the question as crucial for understanding both what went wrong in 2016 and the unresolved debate between primary rivals Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders about the direction of the party in the future.

And some of it is the nature of writing on the internet. The election had nearly 130 million voters. Twitter limits users to 140 characters. Survey toplines make for good headlines. Methodology sections rarely do. And often takes with unambiguous conclusions race across the Internet faster than anything else.

Here's a step-by-step look at what PRRI's study said.

The researchers surveyed more than 3,000 American adults, defining the white working class as white participants without a college degree who did not hold a salaried position.

To test levels of anxiety about cultural change, the researchers asked participants whether agreed that they sometimes feel like strangers in their own country, or that American culture needs to be protected from foreign influence. About half of the white working class (48 percent) agreed with the first statement. Just over two thirds (68 percent) agreed with second, and nearly as many (62 percent) described immigrants as a threat to American culture.

Despite these negative attitudes toward immigrants, an overwhelming majority of the white working class — 69 percent — favors some kind of legal status for illegal immigrants, and 59 percent even said they should be granted citizenship.

To measure resentment against progress by racial minorities, PRRI asked participants whether they felt that discrimination against white Americans was as serious of a problem as discrimination against African Americans, Latinos and other minorities. A majority of the white working class — 52 percent — said that discrimination against whites and against other groups was equally serious.

The pollsters also attempted to gauge how the survey participants felt about their economic well-being.

In short, they were not confident. About a third of the white working class said it would be "very difficult" or "nearly impossible" for them to come up with $400 in an emergency. A similar share said they had cut back on food and meals in the past year to save money.

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