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Research Challenges Assumptions On Why Voters Support Trump

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

Our colleague Tamara Keith has just spent some time on the campaign trail with Donald Trump. And she is now making a brief stop here in Washington, D.C., before getting back on the campaign trail. Tam, it's good to see you in person.

TAMARA KEITH, BYLINE: Good to be here in person.

GREENE: So you spent some time with Trump supporters at this moment where there's new research out that - I mean, it seems to be challenging the assumptions people have made about why voters back the Republican nominee.

KEITH: Yeah. So Donald Trump talks a lot about trade. He talks a lot about immigration. And the prevailing idea was that he's appealing to people who have been hurt economically by trade and immigration. But there's this new paper from an economist at Gallup - that's the polling firm. He looked at a huge sample of about 90,000 people across the country, and what he found is that while his supporters are less educated and more likely to work in blue-collar occupations, they earn relative high household incomes.

GREENE: Not the perception you have of Trump voters. As we've talked about white, working class, you feel like they're not making as much money as they want.

KEITH: Right. And they're also no more likely to live in areas that are affected by immigration or trade.

GREENE: Then what is driving them to support Donald Trump?

KEITH: This study says that there's a stronger correlation with less strictly economic measures for social status, so health and what's called intergenerational mobility.

GREENE: What's that?

KEITH: That is that your children and your grandchildren will do better than you did.

GREENE: OK. So maybe Trump supporters don't think their kids and grandkids are going to have it so well.

KEITH: Or they don't have it so well.

GREENE: Health and a perception that younger generations are going to do better than you. That's so interesting. I mean, does this correlate to what you heard from people as you were out there on the trail?

KEITH: I was in West Bend, Wis. Only about a quarter of the adults there have a college degree. And yet, the median household income is higher than the national average, several thousand dollars higher than the national average. One person I met outside of the Trump event is Kenny Latz. He describes Donald Trump as abrasive. He says he doesn't agree with everything Trump says but that Trump would be way better than Hillary Clinton.

KENNY LATZ: I voted for Obama both times. I'm sad to say that, you know. And there's no way in hell I would vote for Clinton this time. We've been in a downward spiral - every issue in the country for eight years, you know. It's immigration, border, security, terrorism. I'd lump all that together, then we can go from there.

KEITH: And how would you describe the economy right now?

LATZ: Just flat.

KEITH: One thing about Kenny Latz - he does not like politicians.

GREENE: That seems clear.

(LAUGHTER)

KEITH: He also seems to be enjoying the brashness of the current political moment. He told me about an elderly neighbor of his who he checks on. He helps her cut the grass, stuff like that.

LATZ: She called me on a Saturday morning two weeks ago, just screaming at me. That Trump's insane. What the hell's wrong with you?

KEITH: This was prompted by a Hillary-for-prison sign that Latz had put in his yard.

LATZ: So you know I did - I took the one that said Trump 2016, no more [expletive]. I put it right in my yard so she had to look at it out her living room window. She hasn't talked to me since.

KEITH: Are you still going to mow her lawn?

LATZ: Oh, yeah, of course. You know, she in her 80s. I take care of her. I'm not - why wouldn't I mow her grass (laughter)?

GREENE: It's so interesting he's enjoying this political season because a lot of people have not been. But he's just getting a kick out of it. He did say though, Tam, that the country's been in a downward spiral for eight years. I mean, what is he experiencing personally that would make him say that?

KEITH: He talked about the economic downturn. And actually, it hit him even before we were in a recession.

LATZ: I've been in construction all my life. And then when everything took a dump, now I'm just a dumb factory worker.

KEITH: You know, he really loved working in construction. It was his passion. But he's been working in a factory as a machine operator for nearly a decade now.

LATZ: Which I never in my life thought I'd work in a factory.

KEITH: What's it like?

LATZ: I don't mind it. It's air conditioned (laughter). I got good benefits. I go to work, do my job, go home.

GREENE: I mean, you're not hearing this anger from him - that's a word we use a lot this year. It sounds like he's OK in strict financial terms. But he's a little disappointed.

KEITH: Yeah. I mean, he has a good job. He says it's a good job. It's just not what he'd hoped for. Another thing the Gallup study talks about is racial isolation.

GREENE: What are they referring to there?

KEITH: Well, let's just look at where I was. West Bend, Wis. - it's about 45 minutes outside of Milwaukee...

GREENE: OK.

KEITH: ...Which is a very racially divided city. West Bend, according to the census, is almost 95 percent white.

GREENE: What were you hearing from people to suggest what it's like to live and grow up in a community that has that reality?

KEITH: I talked to a couple. They're living paycheck to paycheck. They compare themselves to their neighbors. They don't compare themselves to other people who might be worse off or even better off.

GREENE: OK. So tell me about this couple.

KEITH: Yeah, so it's Jim and Denise Stilman, and I interviewed them at the Trump rally. They say that they like that Donald Trump tells it like it is - that he's not politically correct. And Jim Stilman - he is particularly fed up with, sort of, political correctness. And he feels like that has bled into his economic life.

JIM STILMAN: I've struggled. I'm white. I've been overlooked for minorities and women getting a job in my place. You know, so whatever they want to say about white privilege, I don't agree with. I've been on the other side of it.

GREENE: Tam, I wonder if he knows how this kind of stuff could come across to some people.

KEITH: Jim and his wife, Denise - they know how this sounds. They feel uncomfortable about having these thoughts. Denise was clearly struggling with it as we were talking about it. And David, what she told me is that she wants to think she's not racist.

DENISE STILMAN: I don't care what color you are. I don't care what nationality you are. As long as you're decent, I don't care. That doesn't play into it. And that's why I don't think if you're a race - this race or that gender, you should get a job over somebody else who doesn't fit that certain category.

KEITH: Donald Trump doesn't talk about this specifically. But for Denise Stilman, there's this feeling that he understands. And often for voters, more than positions or experience or any of these other things, feeling like a candidate shares how you view the world can be very, very powerful.

GREENE: OK. We've been talking to NPR's Tamara Keith. She spent some time with supporters of Donald Trump. Tam, thanks a lot.

KEITH: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.