Why Trump Won: Fairness and Change

Donald Trump won the 2016 US presidential election because of two issues: Deep concerns about the fairness of American government, and an intense desire for change. That's a different story that we've heard from many commentators (link), but I'm confident in my opinion because I heard it directly from Trump voters. Below I'll share their voices with you, and tell you how I found them.

This post grew out of an experiment I ran at UserTesting (my employer). I wanted to see if our technology could be used to gather public opinion info. I was pleased with the results, and wanted to share them. At a time when most people are focused on talking, think of this post as an opportunity to listen, and maybe get a better idea of what the whole election meant.

Background. Like many people in Silicon Valley, I was surprised and worried by the recent election of Donald Trump. I didn't understand why so many of my fellow citizens would vote for someone who had such obvious personal flaws. There were plenty of explanations in print and online, but most of them came from the same people who predicted the election wrong. I didn't trust their analysis; I wanted to hear from Trump voters directly.

Fortunately, I had a way to do that. UserTesting runs a system to give companies fast user feedback on websites and apps. You come to us, describe the demographic you want and the tasks you want them to perform, and we recruit normal people to record themselves doing the task. The whole process is automated and extremely fast – you start getting videos back in as little as one to two hours.

I figured I could probably use the same system to run interviews with voters. Instead of testing a website or app, the participants would just answer written questions about the election.

What I learned. I reached out to Trump voters the day after the election, and within a few hours I had all the responses. As you'd expect, there were many different motivations, but I think two threads connected the Trump voters:

--They feel the system in the US is unfair, and is being exploited by people who cheat on the rules.

--They felt that Donald Trump, as an outsider, was the best bet to change the system. Hillary Clinton's long history in government worked against her with many of these voters, because it meant she was seen as a product of the system rather than a change agent.

Trump stood for change. Clinton stood for continuity. Change won.

Don't take my word for it. Below are recordings of the Trump voters, explaining the decision in their own words. First there's a sampler with highlights chosen by me, followed by the full recordings of each interview, so you can judge for yourself. A few notes:

--To protect the privacy of the participants, I did not record their faces, and I have removed any references to their location. All you'll get is a black screen and their voices.

--The participants came from all over the country, and range in age from their 20s to their 60s.

--There are nine recordings. Before anyone objects, I know that's not enough for a statistically significant sample. But statistically significant surveys failed us during the election; do you really want another one? These recordings are more like a focus group, except it was completed in hours instead of weeks, each interview was separate, and the questions were written. So there's no groupthink and no moderator bias. This sort of research won't tell you the exact percentage of people who hold a particular view, but it's excellent for understanding why they think as they do, which is what I wanted.

Here's my highlight reel of Trump voters talking about their choice:

Other issues: What's the mandate?  The full interviews are much richer than my summary, and I encourage you to listen to them. Here are some of the issues that stood out to me:

--The vote was a very difficult decision for some of them. I was humbled by the amount of thought they put into it.

--Some were motivated by intense distrust or hostility toward Hillary Clinton.

--Some were motivated by opposition to abortion.

--There was not a huge amount of hostility to immigration in and of itself. Some of the participants went out of their way to acknowledge the contribution of immigrants. What bothered many of them was illegal immigration, because that was viewed as cheating. Sometimes that was paired with concerns about citizens who cheat on government services. It's the fairness aspect that bothers them: "I'm working hard to make ends meet; it's unfair when others don't follow the rules."

--Although I didn't ask about it, several people mentioned health care costs. They said health insurance prices have gone up dramatically in the last few years, despite President Obama's reforms. In fact, some blamed him for the rise in premiums.

--There was a lot of desire for reconciliation with the part of the country that voted for Clinton. Some of the Trump voters went out of their way to say that they want more cooperation in the country, more equality, and less racial tension.

Overall, I think it's fair to say that the election was a mandate for dramatic change in the system and for increased fairness. That's especially vivid when you think how close Bernie Sanders, another advocate of change, came to the nomination on the Democratic side.

I don't think the election was necessarily a mandate for every other proposal that was floated during the election. In the recordings you'll even hear some Trump voters scoffing about the border wall, and saying they don't want Roe vs. Wade overturned.

I think the election result was a cry for help from people who thought Trump was worth the risk. As one woman put it: "I decided to go with Trump...because I thought maybe he could make a change and he could make a difference, and I am praying that I am right."

You're not the only one, sister.

Here are the full interviews:

What do you think? I'm going to take a chance and leave comments open. I'd love to hear your thoughts on the interviews and what they say to you. But please don't vent, and don't criticize the interview participants. They had the courage to share their thoughts candidly, and deserve to be treated with respect.

PS: Although UserTesting allowed me to do this research, I did it on my own time, because I wanted to understand the election, and I was curious to see if our tool could be used this way. I used personal time to edit the videos, which is why you're seeing this several weeks after the election.

PPS: If you're wondering why I put a political post on a technology blog, stay tuned. There is a connection, which I'll explain in future posts.


Flash Sheridan said...

Thanks for posting this; I agree that it’s important to listen to people different from us. A minor nit about statistics: I really _do_ want another statistically significant survey, but without groupthink and moderator bias. Your research is definitely a step towards better understanding, but the two are orthogonal and we need both.

Michael Mace said...

Thanks, Flash. You make a good point -- we need both the numbers and the thinking that explains them (what the researchers call the quantitative and qualitative). I'm just kind of burned out on the numbers at the moment.

Jose said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Michael Mace said...

Jose, thanks for your comment. I am sure it was very sincere, but to me you were venting, and I asked folks not to do that.

Jose said...

It is difficult not to vent when you personally meet the reality of war. And outside of the US this is what we know Hillary for.

WaltFrench said...

The big concerns you ID'd — fairness & change, medical costs — are EXTREMELY malleable by the political process. For example, the GOP (I saw a Tom Cotton op-ed explicitly) claims that wages for the working class have been depressed by immigrants taking all the jobs. Mathematically, this is essentially impossible; the gains in pay+welfare to the lowest quartile of society are utterly dwarfed by the 600%+ gains over several decades that (we!) 1%ers have enjoyed.

I don't doubt the sincerity of the Trump voters, but as recent Senate actions to kill Obamacare and even the CHIP kids' health provisions show, they voted in a government committed to cutting back the only gains that the working class has made. (The bottom half of Americans have made zero gains in direct income over the last few decades, but expanded Medicaid & other non-income “transfers” have kept them from sinking faster in their relative share of the American Dream.

I.e., demagoguery is alive and well in America. Your finding of “fairness,” while literally true, may be reversed sharply unless Mr Trump can justify a sharp rollback in actuality for his voters. And regards “change,” it's worth noting that Democrats gained seats in both houses of Congress AND neither popular votes for the Presidency or Congress shows a dramatic “throw the bums out” mode. As usual, the opposite.

Your follow-up might want to identify responses in terms of the quality & specifics of the campaigns' messages, and the exceptional news that occurred in the time frames, rather than some inherent set of beliefs by an angry minority (!) of voters.

WaltFrench said...

I hadn't seen my morning Word.A.Day when posting earlier, but I'll just add this:

The people can always be brought to the bidding of the leaders. That is easy. All you have to do is tell them they are being attacked and denounce the pacifists for lack of patriotism and exposing the country to danger. It works the same way in any country.—Hermann Göring, Nazi military leader (12 Jan 1893-1946)