Politics
Trump is a real-world political science experiment

By Brian Resnick

How far will Republicans follow their leader?

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-born nations to enter the United States, he shares Republican desires to end Obamacare, and he’s reducing the role of the EPA 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 increasing the minimum wage, the nuclear agreement with Iran, restricting 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?

Support

Oppose

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: It’s not everyone who 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.

(Also to 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 it was well designed and conducted.)

The more knowledgable 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 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 and a leading expert on how public opinion forms.

Other research has found that many of …read more

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