Race and ethnicity have been a constant backdrop to the 2016 presidential election, thanks to Donald Trump’s provocative comments on immigrants, black communities, and an American-born judge he called “Mexican.”
Yet in all the slicing and dicing of voting intentions by key demographic groups, the “white vote” has largely been considered as a single ethnic block — until now.
A new poll run for BuzzFeed News, which delves into white voters’ self-reported ancestry, reveals surprising diversity in their political outlook. White voters who identify most strongly with their German or Italian heritage strongly support Trump, whereas those who self-identify as Irish, English, or Scottish are more evenly split between Trump and Hillary Clinton.
Between September 22 and October 2 (notably, before the bombshell video of Trump making lewd comments about women), as part of its regular online political poll, the survey firm Morning Consult asked more than 5,000 registered voters to check which of the most common ancestry categories recorded by the Census Bureau applied to them, and also to pick the one ancestry they identified with most.
As in previous polls, voters were starkly divided along broad racial, ethnic, and gender lines.
But the differences across the most commonly reported white European ancestries were also striking, especially when voters were asked to choose the one heritage they identified with most.
“The survey suggests that white Americans are not a monolithic group,” Kyle Dropp, Morning Consult’s co-founder and chief research officer, told BuzzFeed News.
See here for details on the poll analysis.
Many white Americans simply described their ancestry as “American.” Historically, that has been a label favored by people of Scotch-Irish descent who settled in Appalachia — although it was probably used more widely in our poll.
German is the most common European heritage in the United States, claimed by some 45 million people in 2015, or more than 14% of the U.S. population, according to the Census Bureau. Irish, at more than 10%, and English, at about 7.5%, are the next most common. (These categories overlap because many people identify with more than one ancestry).
Those ancestries also led the way in our poll, although Morning Consult recorded more people who identified as English and American than expected from the Census Bureau numbers. That could reflect differences in sampling, the way in which the ancestry question was asked, or the fact that our poll only included registered voters.
For some groups, sample sizes were small. There were just 211 people who identified most strongly as Italian, for example, giving a wide margin of error that means there's a chance that Trump may not actually be ahead in this group.
So why do ethnic Germans and Italians seem to like Trump and the GOP?
Italian Americans seem to have been among the first aboard the “Trump train” of disaffected white voters that swept him to victory in the Republican primaries.
“Italian heritage was a significant predictor of Trump support,” Patrick Ruffini, a Republican digital strategist and founder of the media firm Engage in Alexandria, Virginia, told BuzzFeed News.
In the primaries, Trump dominated in the Northeast, Appalachia and the South, performing particularly well among a demographic once called “Reagan Democrats.” In the Northeast, many of these voters were Italian Americans.
In favoring Trump, voters with German ancestry are siding with one of their own: Trump’s grandfather, Friedrich Trump, then a 16-year-old barber, sailed in 1885 from Bremen, Germany, to make a new life in New York.
But that seems unlikely to explain their preference for the Republican candidate.
“I'm pretty sure these voters do not see Trump as a friendly co-ethnic,” James Gimpel, a political scientist at the University of Maryland who has studied the persistent influence of European ancestry on voting habits in New England, told BuzzFeed News.
Indeed, when asked about their preferences in a congressional race with a generic Republican and Democrat, voters who identified as most German were more likely than others to prefer the GOP.
White voters generally had negative views of President Barack Obama’s record, but ethnic Germans were the most disapproving.
“People’s inherited party preferences are very stable, which is what your poll probably shows,” Gimpel said. He pointed out that concentrations of ethnic Germans in midwestern cities including St. Louis, Cincinnati, and Indianapolis, and in parts of rural Texas, have long leaned Republican.
Indeed, much of the variation in political views across the country can be explained by looking at the immigrants who settled there, David Shor of Civis Analytics, a data science firm in Chicago and Washington DC, spun out of the 2012 Obama campaign, told BuzzFeed News. Scandinavian immigrants shaped the liberal politics of parts of Minnesota, he said, while Dutch Protestants made parts of Iowa deeply conservative.
The German immigrants who came to the United States in the 1800s were a large and diverse group, including Protestants and Catholics, socialists and conservatives. “For a long time, Germans were seen as a swing demographic,” Shor said.
More recently, they have tended to lean Republican, according to Ruffini.
If ethnic Germans are motivated more by traditional conservative values than specific support for Trump, then the recently publicized tape of the candidate making lewd comments about women may change the picture. (A poll conducted on Saturday for Politico, however, revealed little change in voting intentions among GOP supporters.)
In our poll, ethnic Germans were a little older and more likely to be Protestant than the typical white voter, which could partly explain why they skewed GOP.
Still, Peter Skerry, a political scientist at Boston College who studies race, immigration, and ethnic politics, wondered if the tense racial backdrop to the 2016 election cycle has exaggerated splits among white voters along old ethnic lines.
Ethnic Germans, who were forced to downplay their heritage in two world wars, may be particularly suspicious of more recent immigrants, Skerry speculated: “If immigration is one of the key topics in the campaign, what’s the largest immigrant group in America, and the one that was most suppressed? It’s Germans.”
This post has been updated to explain how the small sample sizes for some of the groups may affect the results.