Trump is a real-world political science experiment

President Donald Trump is a Republican. But often, and more so than any president in memory, he lacks a consistent political ideology.

During the campaign, Trump took five different positions on abortion in three days. On other issues, his policy preferences have been clear as mud: “I don’t want to have guns in classrooms, although in some cases, teachers should have guns in classrooms, frankly,” he told Fox News in 2016. He’s quick to engage in public feuds with members of his own party. He’s willing to rebuke his own attorney general, and has shown willingness to work with Democratic leaders Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer on legislation to protect undocumented immigrants who came to the country as children.

And that makes this period of history extremely interesting for political scientists and psychologists to study.

“We’ve never had a federal elected official, let alone the leader of a party or the president of the United States, who is so easily moved from one position to another without offering any sort of justification or apology or explanation,” Michael Barber, a political scientist at Brigham Young University, says.

Researchers like him have long tried to understand the power of leaders and the willingness of the public to hold them accountable. And rarely do they get a real-life experiment like Trump to help them answer some huge questions at the heart of democracy:

How much power do presidents have in swaying public opinion? Will the base always follow even if a president swings wildly from one position to another?

And there’s another key question at play here that matters a lot for the future of Trump’s presidency: If prominent Republican leaders start breaking away from Trump because they don’t like his ideas or temperament, will the base also break?

In essence, Trump is providing an unprecedented opportunity to test the “follow the leader” theory of political science — and to see if Trump will push his followers to a breaking point.

A recent experiment found Republicans are more likely adopt liberal policies when Trump supports liberal policies

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Yes, Trump has been extremely consistent in some areas: He’s made policies that make it harder for people who live in Muslim-majority nations to enter the United States, he shares Republican desires to end Obamacare, and he’s reducing the role of the Environmental Protection Agency and other federal agencies. But for a president, Trump is historically scattershot.

In January, Barber and his BYU colleague Jeremy Pope designed an experiment to take advantage of that fact. They wondered: Are Trump’s supporters ideological, or will they follow him wherever his policy whims go? Right after Trump’s inauguration, they ran an online experiment with 1,300 Republicans.

The study was pretty simple. Participants were asked to rate whether they supported or opposed policies like a higher minimum wage, the nuclear agreement with Iran, restrictions on abortion access, background checks for gun owners, and so on. These are the types of issues conservatives and liberals tend to be sharply divided on.

Barber and Pope wondered: Would Republicans be more likely to endorse a liberal policy if they were told Donald Trump supported it?

One-third of the participants read statements where they were told Trump supported a liberal position, like this:

Please indicate whether or not you support or oppose the statement.

To increase the minimum wage to over $10 an hour. Donald Trump has said that he supports this policy. How about you? Do you support or oppose increasing the minimum wage to over $10 an hour?



Don’t know

The control group of the experiment saw these questions, but they didn’t mention Trump. And another arm of the experiments tested what happened when Trump was said to support conservative policies.

The answer: “On average, across all of the questions that we asked, when presented with a liberal policy, Republicans became about 15 percentage points more likely to support that liberal policy” when they were told Trump supported it, Pope says. They follow their leader. “The conclusion we should draw is that the public, the average Republican sitting out there in America, is not going to stop Trump from doing whatever he wants.” The effect even held true on questions about immigration. If Trump supported a lax immigration policy, his supporters said they did too.

It’s important to note that not everyone is so easily swayed by their leaders. In their study, Barber and Pope found the people most likely to follow Trump’s lead were those who didn’t know much about politics but still strongly identified as Republicans. The most knowledgeable in their sample were hardly swayed at all. To a certain extent, the effect may be the result of people not thinking too hard when filling out a questionnaire. But then again, that’s how most of us come to our political opinions: by not thinking too hard about them.

(Another note: This paper has yet to be published in an academic journal. However, I asked several other political scientists about its merits, and they thought the experiment was well designed and conducted.)

The more knowledgeable the Republicans were in Barber and Pope’s study, the less likely they were to adopt liberal policy positions when told Trump supported them too.

There are real-life examples of this leadership-down process of opinion that go back years. In 1971, Republican President Richard Nixon made a surprise decision to impose a 90-day freeze on wages and prices (to halt inflation, a move that runs counter to conservative economic policy), and even ardent conservative supporters followed suit.

“A Columbia survey … found a 45-point increase from 32 percent to 82 percent ‘virtually overnight’ among Republican activists — precisely the people who ought to have been most resistant to the policy shift on ideological grounds,” explains Larry Bartels, a political scientist at Vanderbilt University and a leading expert on how public opinion forms.

Other research has found that many of us will change our opinions merely from learning a leader supports an idea.

In 2014, political scientists David Broockman and Daniel Butler conducted a field experiment where they had real state legislators’ offices send letters to constituents who the researchers knew, via another survey, disagreed with the legislators’ policies. The letters simply stated what the legislators believed. A control group got no letters. The letters were sent by Democratic lawmakers, but they didn’t state their affiliation in the letters.

The letters — sent to people regardless of the political affiliation — made a small but meaningful effect. They “caused the voters who disagreed with the legislator to become about 6.5 percentage points more likely to agree with the legislator,” Broockman and Butler wrote.

A follow-up experiment added another variable to the mix: Some of the constituents got letters that contained lengthy explanations of their leaders’ policy views. Others just got short summary statements. And “constituents who received lengthy arguments from legislators justifying their positions were just as likely to change their opinions as constituents to whom legislators provided little justification,” they wrote.

The experiment is a demonstration that it doesn’t take all that much to get voters to flip-flop their political opinions. They might not even realize they’re doing it at all.

Trump may have caused some massive swings in public opinion among Republicans

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Consider this recent one.

In 2015, just 12 percent of Republicans held a favorable view of Russian President Vladimir Putin, according to Gallup. It’s not surprising this figure was so low. Just three years earlier, Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney had declared Russia to be our “top geopolitical foe.”

Flash-forward to 2017. Now 32 percent of Republicans have a favorable view of Putin, according to Gallup. That’s a huge jump. And during that time, if anything, Putin lived up to Romney’s prediction.

What changed in just two years? Donald Trump, and his reluctance to criticize the Russian leader.

Or take the issue of free trade: Typically conservatives are in favor of it. It lowers costs for American businesses that want to outsource labor or buy materials from overseas.

“Since Donald Trump entered the 2016 presidential campaign by descending a golden escalator, Republican support for free trade has similarly declined,” Barber and Pope write in their paper. As Pew finds, from 2014 to 2017, Republican support of free trade plummeted from 56 percent in support in 2015 to just 36 percent in 2017. That’s a 50 percent change in opinion.

Trump has massive power to sway public opinion among his followers.

In March, a CBS poll found that 47 percent of Americans — and a full 74 percent of Republicans surveyed — believed it’s “likely” or “somewhat likely” that President Trump’s offices were wiretapped during the 2016 presidential campaign. Trump had tweeted that “Obama had my ‘wires tapped’ in Trump Tower” during the campaign. But there was no credible evidence this happened. Since then, it’s been revealed that Trump’s former campaign manager Paul Manafort had been under surveillance, which confuses the matter. Still, Trump said it was so, and many believed.

And there’s an opposite of the follower-the-leader effect at play too. When Trump takes a position on something, liberals are sure to oppose it. Vox’s Matthew Yglesias has documented these swings in public opinion here.

Very few people have stable policy views. They do have stable party affiliations.

We have a vision of democracy where a virtuous public steers the decisions of leaders, Barber says. But over and over again in experiments — and in the real world — that vision turns out to be a mirage.

The researchers I spoke to admit there’s a bit of a chicken-and-egg problem in this research. Can we really know that Trump caused the change of opinion on free trade, or did Republican voters change their minds and then endorse an anti-free trade candidate?

Both seem to be going on. But there’s a compelling case that Trump caused it.

Gabriel Lenz, a political scientist at UC Berkeley and author of Follow the Leader? How Voters Respond to Politicians’ Performance and Policies, has analyzed decades’ worth of data from the American National Election Studies, a long-running study assessing voter preferences and knowledge about politics. The study data allows Lenz to track the very same voters over decades of political change.

One of the biggest findings in all this data: Voters aren’t all that knowledgeable about politics. Lenz finds only 50 percent of the public can accurately match policy preferences to the correct party or candidate. And about 20 to 40 percent of the public holds stable views on policy, Lenz finds in a forthcoming paper in the Journal of Politics.

“A lot of people don’t know how the parties describe themselves,” he says. “And when they learn my party’s conservative [or is against free trade, etc.], they start saying they’re conservative too. … It’s very hard to find instances where prior policy views seem to drive later voting or decisions.”

A lot of us are like Trump in that regard.

In his research, Lenz finds some people are more likely to be consistent on certain topics, like marijuana legalization, abortion access, and anything related to racial identity. But overall, “we have ample evidence that people are amazingly good at ignoring contradictions.” People can say they support free trade one year and say they’re against it the next, and not really notice their opinion has changed.

When a party leader vocalizes a strong opinion on an issue, many people will just accept that view. In the mind of the voter, it’s replacing a hard question (“How do I feel about international trade taxes?”) with an easy question (“What team am I on, and how would they answer this question?”).

One reason Trump is particularly influential: he’s a “toxic meme” machine

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Trump has a powerful ability to sway opinions among his base — and create polarized opinions among his detractors. We see this play out all the time.

Think about his recent fracas calling out NFL players protesting the national anthem.

The message to Trump’s base is clear: Only ungrateful un-Americans would dare protest the national anthem. His supporters — many of whom perhaps haven’t even been paying attention to the anthem controversy — will believe that too.

When Trump comes out with a strong opinion on a subject, it’s a signal to his base saying, “This is what we believe.” He draws a clear line of what’s “good” and what’s “disgraceful.” It draws a massive amount of attention to a subject, and drives a wedge.

A common Trump tactic is to take something nonpolitical, or not always obviously political (like the NFL) and use it to turn people against another. This isn’t to say there’s nothing worth debating or caring about in the NFL protests. Trump just amps up the temperature in a way that’s sure to pit people against one another.

As Yale professor Dan Kahan puts it, Donald Trump is a “toxic meme” generator.

Toxic memes are stories or ideas “that are predictively likely to trigger the sense that it is us against them,” Kahan explained earlier this year at a scientific conference. “The special danger of Donald Trump,” he said, “is that he can drag issues across this line. He’s the president of the United States. He’s going to get publicity for these kinds of statements, ones that he knows will end up dividing people.”

Look at what’s happened. After Trump directed a massive amount of attention toward the NFL protests, and became so outspoken about it, a Reuters poll found 82 percent of Democrats disagreed with the president, saying football owners should not fire players who kneel during the national anthem. Twenty-nine percent of Republicans said the same. Suddenly the whole country is screaming at one another over football. The issues at the heart of the NFL protests are important. But Trump has turned them into a provocative distraction.

All political leaders have the ability to polarize. But few have done what Trump has done: built a massive social media presence around drawing stark lines between the people who believe in “Make America Great Again” and the “losers” who don’t.

Trump makes it exceedingly clear to followers where their opinions on matters like the NFL anthem protests, Obamacare, and other weighty matters should lie. He’s a master at tying these issues to a proud American identity. If you identify as a proud patriot, and are told that patriots despise NFL owners who let players kneel during the anthem, you’re going to despise them too.

Prominent Republicans and conservatives have spoken out against Trump. It’s (probably) not enough to break Trump’s influence over Republicans.

Politicians are usually ideological. They usually conform nicely to what the party believes. There haven’t been too many tests (aside for the ones mentioned above) of the follow-the-leader theory in the real world. “It’s so rare for a leader of a party to come out and say, ‘We’re going to do this thing the base doesn’t like,’” Barber says.

It’s tempting to imagine a scenario in which Trump’s base leaves him — that if enough prominent Republican leaders and conservative thinkers make a clear, damning break with the president, they can lead Trump’s followers to a more ideologically pure pasture. In that scenario, Republicans hold on to their group identity while decrying Trump as a betrayer.

There are a few recent instances that suggest some cracks are forming. After Trump held a meeting with Pelosi and Schumer on DACA, some conservatives spoke out, loudly. Uberconservative Rep. Steve King of Iowa tweeted that Trump had “blown up” his base.

Trump is even losing Ann Coulter on the DACA issue.

And now Trump is publicly feuding with Republican Sen. Bob Corker. In an interview with the New York Times, Corker said he feared Trump’s temperament could set the world “on the path to World War III.”

But let’s not hold our breath and wait for the moment when the Trump base leaves him en masse, though it would be a fascinating moment for political science if that happens. And there are some signs it could. Recent polls are showing signs his base is becoming disenchanted: 67 percent of Republicans approve of the president’s job performance, an AP-NORC poll finds. That’s down from 80 percent in March.

For now, here’s what the political psychology suggests: A mass exodus ain’t going to happen. Recently, Broockman and his colleague Josh Kalla published a meta-analysis on 49 field experiments in which campaigns attempted to sway voters’ minds. They found evidence that voters’ opinions on issues can change, but not their opinions on candidates. That is to say: There’s scant scientific evidence to say that door-to-door political campaigns can dissuade voters from liking their chosen leader.

It’s also not certain that prominent Republicans could be the catalyst to lead a revolt. In their experiment, Barber and Pope found no evidence that “congressional leaders” could sway Republicans to adopt liberal views. The trick only worked with Trump’s name.

“Only the most vocal, loudest messages come through, and on that, it is hard to beat the president,” Lenz says.

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