Supporting or opposing former President Donald Trump has a causal effect on the perceived ideology of Republican candidates, according to new findings published in American Politics Research. The new study indicates that pro-Trump Republicans tend to be viewed as more “conservative” than anti-Trump Republicans even when policy issues are held constant.
“I’ve been interested in ideological labeling since the first day I started graduate school,” explained study author Karyn A. Amira, an associate professor of political science at the College of Charleston. “When Donald Trump became president and started acting in ways that were antithetical to traditional conservatism (ex: starting trade wars and being friendly with autocrats like Putin), I had to know what his effect on the ideological label would be.”
“There are many ways to do this, but two other researchers named Hopkins and Noel provided a starting point for me. In their study on perceptions of legislator ideology, they noticed that Congress members like Ben Sasse — who were openly critical of Trump — were being perceived as more to the left than their very conservative voting records would dictate. The opposite was happening for openly pro-Trump members of Congress like Lindsey Graham. He was seen as more conservative than his relatively moderate voting record would dictate. I took it from there and expanded on their work.”
In the new study, 416 adults recruited from the Prolific platform read a profile for a (fictitious) Republican candidate who was launching a national campaign for the U.S. House of Representatives. The participants were randomly assigned to one of three conditions: The profile either described the candidate as a Trump supporter, as a critic of Trump, or did not mention Trump (the control condition). In all three profiles, the candidates’ issue positions were exactly the same.
After reading the profile, the participants were asked to place the candidate on a 7-point ideology scale ranging from extremely liberal to extremely conservative. Amira found that the candidate in the control condition had an average ideology rating of 4.85, between “moderate” and “somewhat conservative.”
As expected, the candidate was perceived as more conservative when he was described as a Trump supporter and less conservative when he was described as a Trump critic. But being a Trump supporter had a stronger effect on perceived ideology than being a Trump critic. Being a Trump supporter moved the candidate nearly one unit (0.77) in a conservative direction, while being a Trump critic moved the candidate only 0.38 units in a liberal direction.
The findings demonstrate that “there is a ‘Trump effect’ in how people perceive the ideology of politicians right now,” Amira told PsyPost. “Republican politicians who openly embrace Donald Trump might be perceived as more ‘conservative’ than they actually are. The opposite can be said for Republican politicians who oppose Trump — they might be seen as more liberal than they actually are. My study shows that this is causal, meaning there is something unique about supporting or opposing Trump that is affecting this perception.”
Interestingly, political participation and political knowledge did not appear to significantly impact the results. Participants who were highly engaged and knowledgeable about politics were no different than those who were less engaged and less knowledgeable.
The researchers also asked participants if they thought the Republican candidate held other positions that were not mentioned in his profile. Compared to the control candidate, participants thought the pro-Trump candidate was more likely to believe in election fraud, support funding for a border wall and ICE agents, oppose COVID guidelines, oppose experienced politicians, support aggressive policing, and support the Russian government.
“It’s difficult to know exactly what is driving this ‘Trump effect.’ It could be that anyone who ‘cheerleads’ for Trump is automatically seen as more conservative since Trump is a Republican and Republicans tend to be conservative,” Amira said.
“It could also be that people who ‘cheerlead’ for Trump are assumed to have other Trump-like issue positions such as being strict on immigration. Perhaps that issue is now assumed to be ‘conservative’ and that’s what’s driving the perception. I test these possibilities a bit in the paper, but the conclusion is not definitive. There’s still a lot to uncover.”
The study was conducted in May of 2022, prior to the public hearings held by the U.S. House Select Committee on the January 6 Attack.
“Since Trump lost in 2020, Republicans like Liz Cheney and Adam Kinzinger have spoken out against Trump very publicly as members of the January 6 committee. A few other Republicans voted to impeach him. Once the data is available, we need to look at how Americans perceive the ideology of these legislators,” Amira noted.
“In theory, Liz Cheney should be perceived as very conservative, because she holds quite conservative issue positions (and is trying to preserve democracy). But since she has prominently criticized Donald Trump, this might affect how people perceive her ideology. She and Kinzinger will be a great additional test for this line of research.”
The study, “Donald Trump’s Effect on Who is Considered ‘Conservative’“, was published July 7, 2022.