Who Liked Which Candidate in 2016 and 2020?
After both the 2016 and 2020 presidential elections, national polls such as those by the Pew Research Center and YouGov were buzzing with articles trying to figure out the types of people who voted for each candidate. Who voted for Trump, Clinton, and Biden? While many pollsters attempted to answer this question by looking at demographic differences such as age, social economic status, education attainment, gender, and race/ethnicity, other researchers have turned to the psychological processes that may have made a difference.
Within psychology, personality traits consistently play a role in predicting political ideology and candidate preference. Basically, how would you describe yourself? What kind of a person are you? Often, the "Big Five" is what researchers look at:
- Openness to Experience (being open to novelty and complexity),
- Conscientiousness (valuing goals and maintaining order),
- Agreeableness (showing compassion and observing social norms),
- Extraversion (characteristics related to assertiveness, enthusiasm, sociability), and
- Neuroticism (proneness to experience internalizing and externalizing negative emotionality).
Sometimes the Big Five traits are broken down into two lower-level aspects, which can provide more nuance—namely Openness and Intellect (for Openness to Experience), Orderliness and Industriousness (for Conscientiousness), Compassion and Politeness (for Agreeableness), Assertiveness and Enthusiasm (for Extraversion), and Withdrawal and Volatility (for Neuroticism).
Extensive research has found that both the Big Five and Big Ten personality traits were linked to political ideology. Liberals tend to be higher than conservatives on Openness to Experience, whereas conservatives tend to be higher on Conscientiousness compared to their liberal counterparts, with these personality differences bearing implications for real-life political behaviors, including voting. But do the relationships between personality and politics also transfer over to preferences for specific candidates during national elections?
In our research, we asked this question for the 2016 and 2020 presidential elections. For 2016, we looked at preferences for Hillary Clinton, Bernie Sanders, and Donald Trump. For 2020, we again looked at Donald Trump, as well as Joe Biden. In both studies, we looked at participants' Big Ten personality.
With regard to the 2016 Democratic candidates, we found that Clinton supporters were generally higher in Openness, but lower in Intellect, Politeness, and Volatility. That is, Clinton supporters were more willing to explore novelty, but less willing to engage with complex information, observe social norms, and show outward-turning negative emotionality. Sanders supporters were similarly generally higher in Openness and lower in Volatility—that is, more willing to experience novelty and less likely to show externalizing negative emotionality.
During 2020, Biden supporters were generally higher in Compassion, Intellect, and Withdrawal. That is, they were more likely to care about and empathize with others and more willing to engage with complexity, but also more likely to show internalizing negative emotionality. These patterns already show that, even for candidates representing the same political party, the kinds of people who support them can be quite different. Importantly, there does not appear to be one candidate that fits all—that is, each candidate only appealed to specific supporters, possibly those who share the same or value the specific personality characteristics the candidates embody.
Now what about Trump supporters? Overall, the personalities of 2016 Trump supporters were quite similar to 2020 Trump supporters. In both elections, Trump supporters tended to be less Open and Compassionate, but more Industrious. However, 2016 Trump supporters were generally higher in Orderliness (preference for organization and structure) and Volatility, whereas 2020 Trump supporters were generally lower in Withdrawal (proneness to experience inward negativity, such as sadness). Additionally, the lower-level trait Compassion became a contrasting characteristic of Biden versus Trump supporters in the 2020 election. In 2020, Biden supporters were especially marked by higher Compassion and care towards others, whereas Trump supporters were marked by the opposite.
Overall, these findings can provide a more nuanced understanding of who supported which candidates in the two elections. These findings shed light on the kinds of supporters each candidate attracts, and can help us understand how future candidates may appeal to their potential voters—at least in terms of their personalities!
For Further Reading
Bakker, B.N., Lelkes, Y., Malka, A. (2021). Reconsidering the link between personality and political preferences. American Political Science Review, 115(4), 1482-1498. doi:10.1017/S0003055421000605
Osborne, D., Satherley, N., & Sibley, C. G. (2023). Personality and ideology: A meta-analysis of the reliable, but non-causal, association between Openness and conservatism. In A. Mintz & L. Terris (Eds.), Oxford handbook on behavioral political science. Oxford University Press.
Xu, X., & Plaks, J. E. (2023). Aspect-level personality characteristics of U.S. presidential candidate supporters in the 2016 and 2020 elections. Social Psychological and Personality Science, 14, 588-598. doi:10.1177/19485506221113954
Xiaowen Xu is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Psychological Sciences at William & Mary. Her research focuses on political ideology, personality, and consequences of ideological differences.