Conservative Voters vs. Trump Supporters

Jay T Jennings

Prior to the 2016 election, and since Donald Trump became the president of the United States, there has been a lot of discussion about the role media had in creating and maintaining a level of support for him. Many have suggested that conservative media helped him get elected and have helped him retain a stable base even when his administration has been inundated with controversy. Drawing from research on selective exposure, this chapter will explore how media use relates to approval ratings. Using data from the 2016 and 2017 Texas Media & Society Surveys (TMASS), a national probability-based survey, I look at the media habits of those who supported Donald Trump in the 2016 primary, those who voted for Trump over Hillary Clinton in the 2016 general election, and those who approved of the job Trump was doing as president in 2017. What emerges is a relationship between Trump support being a reliance on (1) fewer news sources overall and (2) news sources that are largely conservative. Even when controlling for ideology and voting for Trump in the 2016 primary, we see significant relationships between approval and the number of conservative and nonconservative news used. The results of this analysis provide evidence that Trump’s support is connected to the media habits of his supporters.

Previous research shows that people are consuming different types of information and consuming varying amounts of news (Arceneaux & Johnson, 2013; Prior, 2005; Stroud, 2011). Conservative news sources in the United States, too, are reporting on a different set of stories than the mainstream media (Baum & Grading, 2008; Budak, Goel, & Rao, 2016; Gentzkow & Shapiro, 2011; Martin & Yurukoglu, 2017). Conservative media’s coverage of Trump as a candidate was less negative than that of the main stream press (Patterson, 2016), and their coverage of his presidency has shown an even greater deviation from mainstream coverage (Patterson, 2017). These phenomena lead to a three-step process. First,

Trump supporters gravitate to the conservative media because of their desire to avoid the negative news about Trump. Second, even as the mainstream media is reporting on the scandals and problems within the Trump White House, the conservative media largely ignored or re-framed many of these issues. Previous research has shown that different media frame information differently (Entman, 1993) and that this has consequences for how people interpret information and form or update their opinions. In the case of media coverage of Trump, this means that those who rely almost exclusively on the conservative media for their news diet are receiving an entirely different perspective on the president’s performance than the rest of the public. Third, Americans who have limited media diets tend to support the president at a higher rate than those who have more diverse media diets. A difference in support among those with similar ideologies but different news diets provides evidence that there is a relationship between news consumption and support for Trump.

To empirically investigate this relationship, I ask the following research questions:

  • • When looking at data from the 2016, do we see differences in the news consumptions habits of Trump supporters as compared to other Republicans and Democrats?
  • • Do differences between early Trump supporters and other Republicans persist after the 2016 presidential election?
  • • Do we see evidence that reliance on conservative news has propped up Trump s approval?

Selective Exposure and News Avoidance

In an information environment with news choice, people often select the news source that aligns with their political preferences. Previous research has shown that this happens for both liberals and conservatives (Garrett, Carnahan, & Lynch, 2013; Messing & Westwood, 2014; Stroud, 2010). It is important, however, to consider the reasons why individuals choose to watch news that conforms to their politics. Research in this area has largely drawn upon the fields of psychology' to explain this phenomenon. In doing so, the concepts of cognitive dissonance and need for closure have been explored as reasons why some people are more likely to avoid counter-attitudinal news and prefer news that fits their prior beliefs.

Cognitive dissonance is the psychological theory that states that humans naturally strive for consistency of beliefs (Festinger, 1962). The result is that it is easier to accept information that supports your prior beliefs than it is to accept information that is counter to your beliefs. Choosing a like-minded news source is choosing the path of least resistance, while choosing an opposing news source is uncomfortable and either requires logical strain to discount the new information or it requires a readjustment of prior beliefs. Cable television news stations such as Fox or MSNBC provide conservative and liberal viewers, respectively, with perspectives on the news that conform with their existing political ideology.

The work by Festinger, as well as Janis (1982) and Nemeth and Rogers (1996), suggests that once a decision is made, that act can influence subsequent information-seeking behavior with biases toward more congruent information building over time. In the context of political news, this would mean that the decision to support a candidate influences which channel or source you get your news. Furthermore, the congruent news found from this source increases support for the candidate and the bias to seek out news and information favorable to the candidate.

In describing a framework to find when people avoid information, scholars note the importance of both situational factors (such as the cognitive dissonance to information counter to current beliefs) and individual factors. One important individual factor is the tolerance for ambiguity or is the orientation of avoiding information—the need for closure. Need for closure is the level of motivation individuals have to tolerate ambiguity and seek out more information or, on the opposite end of the scale, to find definitive answers and a motivation to come to final conclusions (Webster & Kruglanski, 1994). A need for closure leads people to seek out less information and to seek information from less diverse sources. Partisan news appeals to this need for closure. By tuning into a station that is pro-attitudinal, you are presented with information that allows you to come to a conclusion about a person or an issue faster. From this perspective, we would expect that viewing more news sources or news sources containing various perspectives actually would make it harder to come to a conclusion.

Cognitive dissonance and need for closure lead to selective exposure of news. Previous research in political communication has shown that ideological and partisan preferences are leading to selective exposure of political news (Iyengar & Hahn, 2009; Knobloch-Westerwick & Meng, 2009; Stroud, 2011). News consumers are choosing the news that is politically pro-attitudinal and avoiding political news that is counter-attitudinal. This is the first step in the aforementioned three-step process. This chapter aims to describe how selective exposure, particularly to conservative news, is leading to increased support of Trump among those who are selecting a limited and conservative news diet.

Scholarship on selective exposure can help us understand why conservative news would attract and even promote Trump supporters. Stroud (2011) and Arceneaux and Johnson (2013) demonstrate how selective exposure leads to more extreme attitudes and more limited news diets. Stroud finds evidence that those who seek out “niche news” become more polarized by the imbalanced content of their news. Arceneaux and Johnson find that instead of watching news that is counter to their political beliefs, individuals may tune out and watch entertainment rather than deal with the incongruent news. Combined, these works suggest that we should expect relationships between support for Trump and adherence to conservative news and between support for Trump and less news consumption.

What Is Conservative News?

While there are multiple news sources out there and many that could be considered conservative news, the TMASS only asks about a few of them. For the purpose of this chapter, I define conservative news as being from four sources: the Fox News cable television channel, the Drudge Report Internet site, Rush Lim- baugh’s radio program, and the Breitbart television news channel. In this chapter, I compare these news sources to 14 different nonconservative news sources. Some of these sources would be considered mainstream news such as the Washington Post, the Wall Street Journal, or the nightly network news. Others, such as the MSNBC cable television channel or the Huffmgton Post internet site, have a stronger liberal leaning perspective to their news coverage.

Defining the distinction between mainstream news and liberal leaning news is a difficult one and something that will be sidestepped in this chapter. Instead, I will simply delineate between conservative news and nonconservative news. As the data given later will show, there is a clearer line between the conservative news and nonconservative news than there is between liberal news and nonliberal news (at least among the sources included in TMASS). The differences between MSNBC cable television channel and CNN cable television channel are less clear than the difference between CNN and the Fox News cable television channel.

Each of these four outlets defined as conservative news have a clear conservative perspective from which they view the news. Previous research, however, has shown that the content of Fox News is far to the right of other mainstream news (Groseclose & Milyo, 2005). Data from TMASS show that the Drudge Report, Breitbart, and Rush Limbaugh have more conservative viewers and are less popular than Fox News (Stroud, Nold, & Jennings, 2016). It should be noted that in 2016, TMASS did not ask about Breitbart but added it for the 2017 survey. For 2016, only Fox News, the Drudge Report, and Rush Limbaugh were included in the survey.

Texas Media & Society Survey

The Texas Media & Society Survey (TMASS) is a national survey of 1000 Americans and also contains an additional sample of 1,000 Texans. The survey ran in May 2016 and May 2017. The results given later employ only the U.S. sample. For Figures 5.5 and 5.6, the data address a panel of 663 Americans who took the survey in 2016 and 2017. The survey has been conducted by GfK which employs a probability-based recruitment for its panels. Their address-based sampling method allows for GfK to include hard to reach groups, such as minorities, young people, and those in rural areas, into their sample. When necessary, GfK provided internet and web-enabled devices to recruited individuals. TMASS asked a variety of questions to respondents including political participation, community involvement, and media use.

The timing of when TMASS was fielded in May 2016 allows for the comparison of differences within the Republican party based on which candidate they were supporting in that year’s primary contests. When the survey was fielded, not all states had participated in the primaries and no Republican candidate had earned enough delegates to wrap up the nomination. While Trump was in the lead, both Senator Ted Cruz (R-TX) and former Governor John Kasich of Ohio were still viable candidates. A question in TMASS asked respondents if in the past two weeks they had received news from a variety of sources. In 2016, the list contained 17 different national news outlets. Of those, I have categorized three of them as being conservative news sources: Fox News, Rush Limbaugh, and the Drudge Report. The other 14 outlets contain mostly mainstream news sources such as nightly network news, CNN, the Wall Street Journal, the Washington Post, and NPR radio. It also included news outlets that are considered liberal, including the Huffington Post internet site and the cable news on MSNBC.

Results

Figure 5.1 displays the number of both conservative news sources and nonconservative news sources used by respondents who voted for Trump, voted for another Republican, or voted in the Democratic Primary. Those who voted for Trump were slightly less likely to have used a conservative news source in the past two weeks than those who had voted for another Republican, but the difference is not statistically significant. Trump supporters also used fewer nonconservative news sources than those who voted for another Republican and the difference is marginally significant (p = .051). This finding is true even though Trump supporters and supporters of other Republican candidates report no statistical differences in a 7-point political ideology scale (Trump supporter mean = 5.20, other Republican supporters mean = 5.12, p = .583). Unsurprisingly, those who voted in the Democratic Primary were less likely to have used a conservative news outlet (p = .000). They were also more likely to use nonconservative news outlets than those who had voted in a Republican Primary (p = .001).

Trump supporters in May 2016 are not different from other Republicans in their political ideology, at least as it is measured here, but they do consume less news overall and have a larger percentage of their news from conservative sources. These differences are not large (and not significant at the 95% confidence level); however, they show that Republican primary voters consumed a fairly similar diet of news no matter if they supported Trump or not.

In the months between May 2016 and May 2017, Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton were nominated by their parties to represent them in the general

News Diets and 2016 Primary Vote Choice

FIGURE 5.1 News Diets and 2016 Primary Vote Choice

election. Up until the Republican National Convention, there was a sense that some Republican elites might find a way to resist Trumps nomination. Nevertheless, Trump received the nomination. Although he did not win the popular vote in the general election, his lead in the Electoral College put him in the White House.

Similar to trends during his campaign, coverage of his early days in office was more positive on conservative than mainstream news coverage (Patterson, 2017). Thus, as during the campaign, there was a possibility that those who consumed only conservative news would maintain a higher level of support for Trump than those who opted for a more varied news diet. In May 2017, TMASS asked respondents about their 2016 vote choice as well as the news sources used in the past two weeks. Figure 5.2 depicts four conservative news sources and a few of the nonconservative news sources. It shows how people who used any of the conservative news outlets in the past two weeks were extremely likely to report voting for Trump over Hillary Clinton. In contrast, those who tuned into nonconservative news outlets were more likely to vote for Clinton than Trump. Each of these differences are statistically significant at the 95% confidence level except for the Wall Street Journal (p = .093).

Figure 5.2 depicts extreme polarization in where American’s go to get their news. Only in the traditionally conservative Wall Street Journal do we see a nonsignificant difference between Clinton and Trump supporters. For all of the news sources to the left, we see Trump getting less than 30% of support from their consumers. For the four conservative news sources, Clinton gets less than 20% and less than 10% for Limbaugh and Drudge. If, as the previous research suggests, there are differences in the reporting on the Trump

News Diets and Vote Choice in the 2016 General Election

FIGURE 5.2 News Diets and Vote Choice in the 2016 General Election

News Diets and 2017 and 2018 Support for Trump

FIGURE 5.3 News Diets and 2017 and 2018 Support for Trump

presidency, we would expect there to be difference in the viewer’s perception of Trump.

In May 2017, TMASS also asked people about their support for Trump, with options ranging from strongly approve, somewhat approve, somewhat disapprove, strongly disapprove, to didn’t know. Figure 5.3 displays levels of net approval (approval responses-disapproval responses) and individuals who consumed content from Fox, Breitbart, the Drudge Report, and Rush Limbaugh in the past two weeks. Again, a trend continues. Individuals who used sources outside of these four conservative outlets voiced a negative net rating for Trump. The differences were stark. Those who consumed content from Rush Limbaugh or the Drudge Report voiced 80% support for Trump (positive net rating) and those who opted for the Washington Post and the New York Times offered a 80% negative net rating. For each outlet listed, the net rating was significantly different than zero at the 95% confidence interval.

Once again, strong differences in approval emerge based on news diets. The only positive net approval ratings for Trump are found from the conservative news audiences. While those who go to the traditionally conservative Wall Street Journal have a strongly negative evaluation of Trump’s job as president, those watch Fox News had a 40% net positive approval of Trump’s job as president.

Another way of looking at news diets and support for Trump’s first year in office appears in Figure 5.4. Here, the number of conservative and nonconservative news sources are summed. Those who strongly approve of Trump’s performance as president used an average of .93 conservative news sources out of a total of 4 and an average of 1.44 nonconservative news sources out of 11. For those who somewhat approved of Trump in May 2017, the average number of conservative news sources decreased (0.62) and the average number of nonconservative news sources increased (1.93). This trend continues for those who somewhat disapproved and is exaggerated for those who strongly disapproved. For this last group, there were only 0.12 conservative news sources used and 3.28 nonconservative news sources used. The relationship between approval and number of conservative news sources used and the number of nonconservative news sources used is significant at the 99% confidence level.

News Diets and Support for Trump in 2017—Summed News Sources

FIGURE 5.4 News Diets and Support for Trump in 2017—Summed News Sources

Those who approve of Trump’s job as the president have a much more limited and less diverse news diet. Those who disapprove of Trump are consuming news from more sources and are unsurprisingly consuming less conservative news sources. There is polarization not only in the types of news sources being consumed but also in the number and diversity of news sources.

Because TMASS also included a panel of respondents, we are able to track respondent’s attitudes and behavior from year to year. For the U.S. sample panel, there were 159 respondents who voted in the Republican primary in 2016 and also completed the survey in 2017. These 159 people were split fairly evenly with 77 voting for Trump and 82 voting for some other Republican in the 2016 Primary.

For Table 5.1, I ran three models with the 159 respondents. Each of the three models predicts Trump Approval in 2017 and includes controls for whether they voted for Trump in the 2016 Primary and their political ideology as measured by a 7-point self-identification scale. Model I includes a variable for the number of conservative news sources used from 2017 TMASS. The number of conservative news sources used is highly correlated with the approval rating for Trump, even when controlling for Trump Primary vote and political ideology (p < .001). In this model, Trump primary vote and conservativism also correlate with high approval of Trump (p > .001). Model I explains just under 36% of the variance in Trump’s approval numbers as indicated by the adjusted R2. Model II includes a variable for the number of nonconservative news sources used. For this model, we see a negative and significant relationship between the number of nonconservative news sources used and Trump approval (p < .05). Again, this relationship exists even when controlling for the individual’s vote in the 2016 Primary and their level of conservative ideology. This model explains approximately 31% of the variance in Trump’s approval rating in the 2017 TMASS. Model III includes both of the news source measures included in Models I and II. In this model, both the number of conservative news sources and nonconservative news

TABLE 5.1 Models Predicting Trump Approval

Trump Approval

Model I

Model II

Model III

Coefficient

SE

Coefficient

SE

Coefficient

SE

# of Conservative News sources

0.300

0.072

0.446

0.074

# of nonconservative News sources

-0.091

0.038

-0.185

0.038

Trump primary vote

0.541

0.128

0.393

0.137

0.388

0.124

Political ideology'

0.325

0.052

0.363

0.053

0.252

0.051

Constant

-0.216

0.274

0.180

0.336

0.672

0.314

Adjusted R2

0.356

0.308

0.438

Conservative News Sources and Support for Trump

FIGURE 5.5 Conservative News Sources and Support for Trump

Conservative News Sources and Support for Trump sources used are significant predictors of Trump’s approval

FIGURE 5.6 Conservative News Sources and Support for Trump sources used are significant predictors of Trump’s approval. Including both of these measures into the model explains nearly 41% of the variance of Trump’s job approval numbers in the 2017 TMASS data.

Figure 5.5 displays the results from Model I and the relationship between use of conservative news sources and Trump approval. For this graph, the linear predictions for both Trump primary voters and other Republican primary voters are displayed. As can be seen in the figure, Trump voters were more likely to approve of Trump’s job as president than those who voted for another Republican in the 2016 Primary. For both groups, we see a positive and significant relationship between the number of conservative news sources used and approval of Trump’s job as president.

Figure 5.6 presents the findings from Model II, and again the groups of Primary voters are separated out. The more nonconservative news sources used by respondents, the lower their approval of Trump’s job as president. Again, this is among Republican Primary voters and is controlling for their level of political ideology.

Conclusion and Discussion

These results suggest that attitudes about the Trump presidency are related to the type of news media being consumed. In studying Republican primary voters and controlling for their levels of political ideology', this chapter has attempted to hold two important variables constant: partisanship and ideology. The differences in opinions on Trump’s performance as president are highly correlated with the type of news being consumed.

While causation is not possible to prove with this type of data, what has been presented provides evidence that there is a strong relationship between a person’s news media diet and their support for Trump. Those who are consuming more conservative news and consuming less nonconservative news are much more likely to support Trump. This finding is not surprising based on what we know about selective exposure and the content of conservative news. Those who are consuming very little nonconservative news are less likely to be exposed to negative information about Trump.

Is the news polarized because we as a nation are polarized or is our news making us more polarized? This chapter cannot definitely give us the answer to this question, but the evidence presented suggests that our news is making us more polarized. We see small differences in the media habits of those who support Trump back in the primaries of 2016. Over the course of a year, though, we see important differences appear between those who support Trump and those who do not. Furthermore, even those who supported Trump in the past and are equally conservative are less supportive of Trump if they have a more diverse news diet. Americans who are consuming more conservative news and less nonconservative news are more supportive of Trump.

In this regard we have two problems. First, we have news outlets who are not honestly portraying the news. They are downplaying certain events and framing others in a more favorable light. In this chapter, we have dealt with conservative news media and how this relates to the support of a conservative president, but the bias of the liberal news media may act in a similar way. It is problematic that news outlets are actively trying to present the news in a manner that conforms to the ideology of their target audience. Democracy requires that citizens are informed about their government and can keep them accountable. If citizens are not getting the accurate information about their leaders, it is impossible for them to keep them accountable. Second, that people are seeking out news that fits their political ideology' is also dangerous. Although we can understand how this happens because of previous research on cognitive dissonance and need for closure, if people only look to news that is ideologically similar, they feed their own biases. This pattern is particularly problematic if people are doing this unknowingly. Individuals may believe they are getting all the facts but instead are only getting part of the story'. In the contemporary news environment where consumers can choose their niche, it is important for us to educate people so that they know that not all news is created equal.

Discussion Questions

  • 1. Donald Trump received favorable news coverage from conservative outlets while running for president and during his first year in office. In your mind, was that coverage helpful or harmful for the Republican Party' more broadly? Why?
  • 2. What are the advantages and disadvantages of limited versus diverse media diets?
  • 3. What would the ideal conservative news outlet look like? What type(s) of content would it run? What would it want its audience to know?

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