Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump has enjoyed a boost from a pretty unlikely source this election season: former supporters of President Barack Obama.
Though these voters make up a tiny fraction of the electorate, it’s instructive to understand their political evolution from helping elect the nation’s first black President to supporting a candidate who has suggested that same President may be a Kenyan-born secret Muslim. They are a testament to the rising tide of racial resentment in the U.S., the aggressive backlash to the Black Lives Matter movement, and the appeal of a candidate who has brushed aside conservative principles that never mattered all that much to the GOP base anyway.
Several such voters were in attendance at the American Renaissance conference, an annual gathering of white nationalists, in May.
An oil and gas industry employee from Houston, Texas who gave his name as Karl North told TPM that he had twice voted for Obama but was now all in for Trump. He said he realized during the Obama years that “multi-cultural societies do not work” and now thinks that white people should have their own ethno-state.
“One thing that really opened my eyes was the Ferguson debacle,” North said, describing the protests that broke out in 2014 after a white police officer fatally shot an unarmed black teenager. “Watching them destroy their own community, I mean whites don’t do that.”
North’s extremist views are the exception, and the number of former Obama voters who now support Trump is small. Though few polls have touched on this overlap, a March survey by the non-partisan RAND Corporation found that 7.9 percent of Trump supporters voted for Obama in 2012, while a May ABC News poll put the same group at 15 percent.
Michael Pollard, a sociologist at RAND, who helped oversee that group’s survey, pointed out that Obama voters who said they would support Trump this year in their state’s primaries or caucuses shared key demographic traits with Trump’s base, but were much more preoccupied by immigration.
“These people looked more or less like Trump supporters in general: they’re older, they’re more white, and compared to other Obama 2012 voters they are more likely to be retired and they had lower levels of education,” Pollard told TPM.
One “key predictor” that Pollard mentioned was these voters’ predilection towards rigid discipline.
“We took measures of voters’ response to authoritarian practices, like how much you agreed or disagreed that it was sometimes necessary to discipline a child with a spanking,” he said. “If Obama voters agreed or strongly agreed with that statement, they were three times more likely to switch over to supporting Trump.”
These older, white, less educated voters feel disempowered by U.S. politics and are eager to find an explanation for their grievances. The racial resentment that fueled Trump’s rise to the top of the Republican Party ticket provided one.
Two friends who attended the American Renaissance conference and said they voted for Obama in 2008 recounted how they’d become increasingly concerned about racial friction and terrorism during his presidency.
“I am worried about the erosion of traditional America,” said a woman who identified as “JeannieD,” a former IT project manager at Microsoft who now works as a part-time receptionist. “I think that whites are marginalized. It’s okay to be proud to be African-American, proud to be Asian, but if you’re white and proud, you’re a white supremacist.”
“I see the hypocrisy in that too,” said Tina Nichols, a former restaurant industry worker.
Paul Gottfried, a retired sociology professor who spoke at the 2008 American Renaissance conference but insists he does not hold white nationalist views, said antipathy towards George W. Bush and the neoconservative establishment helped explain why these voters gravitated toward Obama.
He recalled that some of the 2008 conference attendees he spoke to voted Obama in protest because they were “right-wing isolationists who thought a McCain victory would bring to power some kind of hard neoconservative regime.”
Mitt Romney failed to appeal to those voters, too. Yet Trump’s unorthodox campaign managed to appeal to those skeptical of an aggressive U.S. foreign policy and free trade deals, as well as those who felt threatened by the nation’s increasing diversity. Reporters from CNN and Business Insider encountered a number of these onetime Obama voters on the 2016 trail.
Leonard Zeskind, author of “Blood and Politics: The History of White Nationalism from the Margins to the Mainstream,” said that the Tea Party movement played a critical role in mobilizing voters who fit their description.
“Their unspoken but spoken message of we want our country back, of white dispossession” attracted voters and helped turn that resentment into a potent political force, Zeskind said.
Mark Potok, a senior fellow at the Southern Poverty Law Center, noted that some white nationalists openly cheered Obama’s campaign in 2008, arguing that having a black man in the White House could help spark violent racial clashes or at least draw supporters to their cause.
“They were predicting a race war and they didn’t precisely get that, but they certainly got Dallas,” he said, referring to the recent attack on police officers at a Texas Black Lives Matter rally. “They certainly got Donald Trump.”