News Release

Trump’s “Populism” and How Big Money Drives Elections


THOMAS FERGUSON, thomas.ferguson at
Ferguson is professor emeritus at the University of Massachusetts, Boston. He coauthored the just-released paper “The Economic and Social Roots of Populist Rebellion: Support for Donald Trump in 2016” for the Institute for New Economic Thinking.

He said today: “Most analysts of the 2016 election have concluded that social anxieties overwhelmingly predominated in explaining the result. They argue that the story is simple: Trump was elected by ‘deplorables,’ fueled by racial resentment, sexism, and fear or dislike of immigrants from abroad. Economics, they say, made little or no difference. This story has been repeated so often in many parts of the mass media that it has hardened into a kind of ‘common sense’ narrative.

“Our new paper [PDF] shows that this view is mistaken. The picture is considerably more complicated. Social anxieties certainly did play an important part in Trump’s victories — particularly in the 2016 Republican primaries, where many voters were indeed motivated by resentments related to race, ethnicity, immigration, and gender. Social issues were important in the general election as well. But upon careful examination of several types of data, the real picture looks considerably more complicated.

“Economic factors mattered at both stages. Moreover, in the general election — in contrast to the primaries — leading social factors actually tended to hurt rather than help Trump. While agreeing that racial resentment and sexism were important influences, the paper shows how various economic considerations — including concerns about imports and job losses, wealth inequality, social welfare programs, and starved infrastructure — helped Trump win the Republican primary and then led significant blocs of voters to shift from supporting Democrats or abstaining in 2012 to voting for him. It also presents striking evidence of the importance of political money and senators’ ‘reverse coattails’ in the dramatic final result.”

Ferguson also coauthored the recent piece “Big Money — Not Political Tribalism — Drives U.S. Elections.” Findings include:

* “Political leaders of both major parties depend heavily on large contributions … in our two-year election cycles.

* “Mitch McConnell is uniquely reliant on them. In 2016 Clinton relied more on them than Trump, though both had high levels.

* “Bernie Sanders was the one exception. Almost 60 percent of his were below the $200 limit for itemization. He received essentially no large contributions. Trump also received substantial small contributions.”

See coverage from The Intercept: “Donald Trump Exploited Long-term Economic Distress To Fuel His Election Victory, Study Finds.”

Ferguson’s books include Golden Rule: The Investment Theory of Party Competition and the Logic of Money-Driven Political Systems.