Every election is followed by an attempt to explain its outcome. One of the more common explanations of the 2016 presidential election was that Hillary Clinton lost because she relied on “identity politics.” So we were curious: Would white Democrats be inclined to choose a different type of 2020 candidate if they were told that Clinton’s 2016 loss was caused by identity politics? We conducted a survey to find out, and the short answer is yes, but with one big caveat: While women’s preferences shifted substantially, men’s views remained largely unaltered.
The identity politics argument, as explained by political scientists like Mark Lilla and Francis Fukuyama, is that Clinton’s appeals to groups like women, people of color and the LGBT community left white working-class men feeling alienated from and unappreciated by the Democratic Party. They responded by voting for Donald Trump, whose identity-based appeals were directed at them. A message that focused on universal economic gains, rather than the needs of marginalized communities, the argument goes, would have allowed Clinton to win. Of course, others have argued that Clinton could have won more votes by making more explicit appeals to African American voters, who did not turn out in at as high a rate as they did when Barack Obama was on the ballot in 2012 and 2008.
These sorts of post-election narratives can be very powerful, regardless of whether they’re actually true. As political scientist Marjorie Hershey notes, they can affect the lessons people draw from an election and how they approach future contests. So we were interested in better understanding how the identity-politics explanation for Clinton’s loss might affect white Democratic voters. After all, many candidates are trying to court white Democrats for the 2020 election, and the identity politics narrative may have a unique appeal for white voters (particularly men) because it implies that their preferences should take precedence over those of marginalized groups. Could attributing Clinton’s loss to identity politics make these voters change what type of candidate they prefer in the next presidential election?
To find out, we surveyed 845 white Democrats.1 In our study — which has not yet been published in a peer-reviewed journal, though the preliminary findings have been shared at a recent conference of the Midwest Political Science Association — we showed half the respondents a fictitious newspaper clipping that said Democrats lost the 2016 election and failed to take the Senate in 2018 because the party focused too much on identity politics and didn’t address universal issues like the economy.2 The other half of the respondent group was shown a clipping about Democratic disappointments in 2016 and 2018 that did not reference identity politics.3 We then asked respondents why they thought Democrats lost in 2016 and had them participate in something called a conjoint study, which asked respondents to choose between two hypothetical Democratic 2020 candidates, randomizing for gender, race and ideology, in a series of trial heats.
The findings were telling. Among those who weren’t shown the story about identity politics, men were more than twice as likely as women to believe that identity politics caused Clinton’s loss. But reading the identity politics story seemed to have little effect on men, who believed that explanation for Clinton’s loss in about equal numbers whether we showed them the identity-politics story or not. Among women, on the other hand, there was a dramatic difference between those who were shown the story blaming identity politics and those who were not — those in the first group were more than twice as likely to blame identity politics for the loss.
We also found large effects on women’s choices for the type of candidate they wanted to see as the Democratic nominee in 2020. Women in the study who were not shown the identity-politics narrative were more likely — by 11 percentage points — to choose female candidates over male candidates. But women who were shown the identity-politics story chose female candidates at a lower rate — they were just 6 points more likely to choose a female candidate over a male.
And when we asked respondents whether they wanted a candidate who was focused on generalist efforts to build a strong economy versus one who wanted to ensure fairer prison sentences for nonviolent criminals, one who was committed to addressing discrimination in the workplace, or one who wanted to reduce racial discrimination in criminal sentencing, we found that women who were shown the identity politics narrative were substantially more likely to prefer an economically oriented candidate. Among women who weren’t shown the identity politics story, candidates focused on shorter sentences for nonviolent offenders were at an 8-point disadvantage compared with those focused on the economy. That grew to a 15-point loss among women who saw the identity-politics clip.
Similarly, among women who read the identity-politics story, support for candidates focused on fair sentencing for people of color was 10 points lower than it was among those who hadn’t read the identity-politics story. And perhaps most strikingly, candidates focused on fair employment for women and people of color lost 11 points of support relative to those focused on the economy after respondents saw the identity-politics narrative.
We found no statistically significant shifts in men’s candidate preferences. One reason women might be disproportionately likely to change the way they think about the next election cycle is that gender norms call on them to be accommodating, and those norms influence people’s political decision-making.
While we will be examining these effects further, the preliminary results strike us as important for understanding the current invisible Democratic primary: Quite a few Democratic leaders believe it’s important to increase the gender, racial and ethnic diversity of political representatives, as it helps ensure that a wider range of voters will have their experiences and interests represented. Yet, as our study found, a non-trivial portion of the electorate can be easily dissuaded from pursuing this goal when told it could cause an electoral loss.
It’s also a reminder that the divisions we saw among Democrats in 2016 are still very much present, and arguably even more potent today. Interpreting the 2016 election will be central to the way voters, activists and candidates think about 2020. And the dominant narrative of why Clinton lost will likely shape what the next nominee will look like.