What attracts non-wealthy voters to Donald Trump?

By Rich Schneider, IU Communications Specialist:

Count Amanda Friesen, an assistant professor of political science in the School of Liberal Arts at IUPUI, among those who wondered why working-class voters of modest means support billionaire Republican presidential candidate Donald J. Trump.

After all, these supporters generally fared the worst in the aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis and the Great Recession. So what was the attraction to a man of wealth, privilege and a Wharton degree?

Friesen, in a recent interview and a blog post, turned to her research to explain why.

Her theory is: It’s not Trump’s wealth so much as the way he uses it.

Friesen and a colleague, Matthew Hibbing, recently published an article that explores the relationship between personal money attitudes and government spending.

Amanda Friesen

Amanda Friesen

“You hear all the time the idea that government should be run like a business,” she said. “If I can balance my household budget, why can’t the government? I discovered people don’t seem to connect how they think about money with their belief about how government should think about money. In other words, there are frugal liberals and frugal conservatives.”

She also looked at questions related to how people feel about material things. Participants indicated the extent to which they agreed with statements such as “Buying things gives me a lot of pleasure” and answered whether they put more emphasis on material things “than most people I know.”

“Our research found if a person looks at material items — be they cars, houses, clothes, jewelry — as central to their sense of self, they are less in favor of distributing wealth through political policies favored by liberals,” Friesen said. “That suggests their attitude is “Because things are central to who I am, I don’t want to give up any more money in taxes, because I want to buy things.”

It’s been argued that lower-socioeconomic voters support policies, parties and candidates that benefit the wealthy because of a belief in the American dream and the hope that somehow they might make it too, she said.

Friesen suggested that theory could be taken one step further, wondering if Trump supporters, at a certain economic level and from a certain cultural background, would make exactly his choices, if they had the money.

“They do not aspire to hobnobbing over foie gras and a ’78 Margaux before the Met Gala; they want the penthouse suite at the MGM Grand.”

In other words, it’s not Trump’s wealth so much as the way he spends it, Friesen said. Trump largely shares his supporters’ tastes; the difference is that he has the money to act on those mutual desires.

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