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Trump's Appeal to the Cognitively Challenged
New research reports Trump voters were more likely to perform poorly on a
test of intellectual ability.
Oct 4, 2018
Mark Searles waits for the arrival of President Donald Trump at his Make
America Great Again Rally at the Florida State Fair Grounds Expo Hall on
July 31st, 2018, in Tampa, Florida.
(Photo: Joe Raedle/Getty Images)
During the 2016 election, Donald Trump famously proclaimed "I love the
poorly educated!" Well, if "poorly educated" is a euphemism for
"cognitively challenged," new research finds they loved him right back.
It reports Trump voters, on average, performed more poorly than Hillary
Clinton supporters on a standard test widely regarded as a good indicator
of intellectual ability.
"Intellectual factors played an important role in the 2016 election,"
writes a research team led by Yoav Ganzach of Tel Aviv University. "These
results suggest that the 2016 U.S. presidential election had less to do
with party affiliation, income, or education, and more to do with basic
In the journal Social Psychological and Personality Science, Ganzach and
his colleagues analyzed data from the American National Election Studies,
which included 5,914 participants in 2012 and 4,271 in 2016.
Besides expressing their attitudes toward that year's presidential
candidates, participants took a standard test of verbal ability.
Specifically, they were presented with 10 sets of words, and asked "to
identify the word or phrase in a set of five that was the closest to the
While hardly comprehensive, the test "is considered a good indicator of
general cognitive ability," the researchers note.
After taking into account participants' party affiliation, the researchers
found intellectual ability was a strong predictor of attitudes toward the
two major candidates in 2016. Specifically, they found "clear negative
relationships of verbal ability and education with attitude toward Trump."
In contrast, they found "weak, nonsignificant relationships of verbal
ability and education with attitude toward [Mitt] Romney" in his failed
2012 campaign. In both elections, higher levels of education and verbal
ability were associated with support for the Democratic candidate [Barack
Obama or Hillary Clinton].
"Support for Trump was better predicted by lower verbal ability than
education or income," the researchers add. "Our analyses indicate that
support for Trump was less about socioeconomic standing, and more about
Ganzach and his team note that Trump, on the campaign trail, expressed his
opposition to both socially liberal beliefs (such as support for abortion
rights and opposition to racism) and fiscally conservative beliefs (such
as free trade). Both sets of beliefs have been linked in past research
with higher cognitive ability, so it makes sense that their appeal would
be largely limited to those who score lower on such measures.
This research adds to the rapidly growing list of findings attempting to
explain why the American voters (although not a majority) supported a
candidate widely viewed as lacking the qualifications or temperament to be
While economic anxiety has been largely ruled out as a likely explanation,
studies have pointed to whites' fear of declining social status in a
rapidly changing society, as well as racist and sexist beliefs, tribalism,
possessing an authoritarian mindset, and even being prone to anxiety, and
thus susceptible to Trump's fear-based appeals.
Ganzach's findings align with those of another recent study that found
Democrats who crossed over to vote for him were the least likely
demographic to engage in analytical thinking. This may be because, in many
cases, they just aren't good at it.