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Poll: Donald Trump's supporters are no more racially resentful than Marco Rubio's

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Dylan Matthews is a senior correspondent and head writer for Vox's Future Perfect section and has worked at Vox since 2014. He is particularly interested in global health and pandemic prevention, anti-poverty efforts, economic policy and theory, and conflicts about the right way to do philanthropy.

One of the central questions of the 2016 election is the extent to which racial animus, and in particular animus and fear targeted at Latinos and Muslims, is fueling support for Donald Trump. This is a tricky question to tackle because racially bigoted people are rarely forthcoming with their bigotry, so asking them straight-up if whites are the superior race — as Public Policy Polling did in South Carolina — can only get you so far.

So Vox and our polling partner Morning Consult, a media and polling company, took a different approach. And what we found was surprising. Trump's supporters definitely harbor some racial resentment, but they're no more bigoted than supporters of his main rival: Marco Rubio. (You can see the crosstabs here, and the topline results here).

Over the past couple of decades, political scientists and social psychologists have developed a battery of questions meant to measure "subtle" or "symbolic" racism. The idea is that racial prejudice that was once expressed openly is now channeled through rhetoric emphasizing personal responsibility, a minimization of the effects of discrimination, and a belief that hard work alone is enough for oppressed minorities to thrive.

So Morning Consult and Vox decided to ask a national sample of registered voters four "symbolic racism" questions, culled from a list of six in the University of Michigan's Donald Kinder and University of Virginia's Lynn Sanders's book Divided By Color. Specifically, Morning Consult asked respondents if they agreed that:

  1. Irish, Italian, Jewish, and many other minorities overcame prejudice and worked their way up. Black people should do the same without any special favors.
  2. It’s really a matter of some people not trying hard enough; if black people would only try harder they could be just as well-off as whites.
  3. Over the past few years, black people have gotten less than they deserve.
  4. Generations of slavery and discrimination have created conditions that make it difficult for black people to work their way out of the lower class.

For the first two questions, agreeing is seen as a sign of racial resentment, whereas for the latter two, disagreeing is.

We then broke down the result based on which candidates the respondents were supporting. Racial resentment was overall substantially less common in people supporting Democratic candidates. But interestingly, Trump supporters were not unusually racially resentful compared with Rubio supporters; Cruz and Carson supporters appear relatively more tolerant.

Take the Irish/Italian/Jewish comparison question:

Substantial fractions of Clinton and Sanders supporters agree with the statement, but overall support is much higher among Republican candidates' supporters. Rubio and Trump are on top.

Same situation for the statement insisting that black people just don't work hard enough:

Same ordering: Rubio's supporters are the most likely to express racial resentment, followed closely by Trump, and then Cruz and Carson.

Let's pivot to the questions where low agreement suggests racial resentment. Same story. Agreement is lowest among Rubio supporters and very slightly higher for Trump supporters. Here's the question on whether black people have received less than they deserve of late:

The sole exception is the question on whether slavery and discrimination have hampered upward mobility. There, Rubio supporters are likelier to agree with the statement than Trump supporters, but interestingly, Carson supporters — who are otherwise less likely than their Republican peers to express racial resentment — are the least likely to agree:

The distinctions between Republican candidates are much smaller than between the parties. And it's clear that whatever Trump supporters as a whole believe, the candidate has a real base of support among out-and-proud racists and white supremacists.

But at least on these particular metrics, Trump's supporters overall aren't outliers. Rubio's are as likely to express opinions indicative of racial resentment.