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Why Anger At Trump May Not Help Democrats Win

One dominating response to Donald Trump’s presidency has been anger.

Trump has stoked outrage among his supporters, who have echoed his rhetoric and fury, and his detractors, who have launched anti-Trump resistance protests and helped recruit new congressional candidates in 2018. It has also set the mood for the 2020 election. There’s only one problem for Democrats looking to replicate Barack Obama’s multiracial coalition: The voters most energized by anger are white.

According to the book “The Anger Gap” by political scientist Davin Phoenix, white Americans — both Democrats and Republicans — are a lot more likely to be motivated by anger than black Americans and, to a lesser extent, Latino and Asian Americans. White Americans, Phoenix finds, express more anger about politics in public opinion polls, and they’re also more likely to turn out to vote because they are angry. Since 1980, he finds, black Democrats have been seven points less likely to report feeling angry about the Republican presidential candidate than white Democrats, according to data from the American National Election Studies.

“The political power leveraged from being mad as hell is largely reserved only for white Americans,” he writes.

Many of the underlying reasons, Phoenix argues, are systemic. Simply put, nonwhite voters have far fewer expectations of the political system working for them. Instead, Phoenix found nonwhite voters are more likely to be motivated to vote if they feel pride or hope — as they did in 2008 due to Obama’s historic presidential nomination.

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Expressing anger is also difficult for nonwhite voters to navigate politically — especially black voters. There is the “potential stigma that comes from the label of being an angry black woman or an angry black man,” Phoenix told me. White Democrats and Republicans, in contrast, haven’t been afraid to publicly display their polarized opinions in the Trump era — on protest signs and in online comments and polls.

Increased anger isn’t a new phenomenon, but it is a rising one. Political scientist Steven Webster argues in his book, “American Rage,” that this current moment of partisan rancor is the culmination of a long pattern of increased anger in American politics. Webster finds that politicians in both parties and those who appear on partisan cable news channels increasingly use angry rhetoric, especially in election years, fueling the fire. Public anger, in turn, fuels negative impressions of the other party and declining trust in government.

But if 2020 is an election driven primarily by anger, that might backfire on Democrats. Take the 2016 election. One reason former Sen. Hillary Clinton was less successful in mobilizing Obama’s base was because her focus on Trump’s bigoted comments attracted some who shared her views but did not resonate with nonwhite voters. “The Clinton campaign bet big on the strategy of highlighting the racist and xenophobic undertones of the Trump campaign,” Phoenix writes, “but its ‘basket of deplorables’ messaging appeared to engender more of a rise from Trump supporters falling under this label than people of color feeling targeted. … [It was] a severe miscalculation of the way people of color respond to political threats.”

Former Vice President Joe Biden faces enormous pressure to turn out nonwhite voters in 2020, but if 2016 is any indication, liberal policy positions alone won’t be enough. Because like the broader anti-Trump resistance movement, the leftward movement of the Democratic Party has been most pronounced among white voters. Even on issues of race, nonwhite voters are no longer significantly more liberal than white Democrats. And research finds that many African American voters identify as conservative despite their strong collective identification with the Democratic Party.

It’s true that black voters overwhelmingly vote Democratic — 88 percent in 2016 — but Biden shouldn’t take that support for granted. That was down from 94 percent in 2012, and there is growing evidence that those who don’t vote regularly are less likely to support Democrats. And some early polls show Biden is already lagging behind Clinton in support among nonwhite voters.

Black voters formed the bedrock of Biden’s victory in the Democratic primaries, but Phoenix does not see that necessarily translating into motivation to vote in the general election. He argues that robust support for Biden in the primaries spoke more to black voters’ skepticism that the broader electorate would support a less conventional candidate against Trump in the general election than their enthusiasm for Biden.

But it is possible for Biden to make gains. In the book “Steadfast Democrats,” political scientists and FiveThirtyEight contributors Ismail White and Chryl Laird found that one reason black voters are so loyal to the Democratic Party is because of the social pressure they face from other black voters. So if Biden is able to successfully energize key leaders in the black community — as he did in South Carolina in the primary — that could help him turn out African American voters in November. It’s also possible that his role as Obama’s former vice president could carry additional weight.

“If you want blacks to support you, you have to get the people within their social networks to help mobilize them in terms of helping to ensure a high turnout,” said White. Unfortunately, thanks to the coronavirus pandemic, that’s hard advice for Biden’s currently homebound campaign to heed at the moment. But he will need to keep it in mind. He cannot count on anger at Trump to be motivation enough for voters who aren’t white.

Matt Grossmann is director of the Institute for Public Policy and Social Research and professor of political science at Michigan State University. His books include “Red State Blues,” “Asymmetric Politics,” “Artists of the Possible” and “The Not-So-Special Interests.”