The Republican Party, Trump, and two election platforms – From Conservatism to Emotional Polarization?

by Tobias Burst, Pola Lehmann, Sven Regel, Bernhard Weßels and Lisa Zehnter

The upcoming US presidential election is special in many respects. One of the predominant features is Donald Trump, who dominates the political discourse from the side of the Republicans. In August this year he published his agenda for the next term – which is truly his agenda, because the Republican Party refrained from offering a new election platform. Does Trump represent the party’s positions or has the party rallied behind Trump? In this article we (Tobias Burst, Pola Lehmann, Sven Regel, Bernhard Weßels and Lisa Zehnter from the Manifesto Project at WZB Berlin) look at the extent to which Trump’s agenda differs from the 2016 Republican manifesto, how many of the issues are already well known from Trump’s Twitter feed, and what voter groups and preferences he is trying to address.

© Gage Skidmore from Surprise, AZ, United States of America

On November 3rd US citizens will be asked to decide who their president for the next four years will be – an important decision, which does not affect only US citizens. Consequently, it seems that the whole world is holding its breath, awaiting the outcome and wondering what the US and the world will be like after the election. As different as the two opposing sides are, for each the answer seems to be relatively straightforward: depending on the outcome either everything will become better or everything will become worse.

But what if we look at this from a more factual perspective? What political agenda can we expect a certain party or candidate to push if they are elected to office? As party researchers we normally turn to the parties’ election platforms to answer such questions. Election platforms inform voters about the policy goals for the next term, and outline which issues the party and president want to prioritize and what actions they want to take.

2020 – For the first time in over a century the Republican Party has not published a new election platform

In the US these platforms are written by political parties. They give them the opportunity to state their policy positions and to unite behind their presidential candidate. But this time it is different: For the first time in over a century one of the two major parties in the US has not published a new election platform – the Republican Party has refrained from drafting a 2020 election platform.

The Republican National Committee has justified this decision using the ongoing pandemic, which would not permit a large gathering of party members to discuss and agree upon a new platform. Instead they have published a resolution explaining this decision, together with the election platform from 2016, suggesting that the 2016 platform will remain relevant for the upcoming term. The resolution also says that “the Republican Party has and will continue to enthusiastically support the President’s America-first agenda” and by that gives President Trump the liberty to define the main agenda points for a second term without coordinating with the party.

At the end of August 2020 Donald Trump’s team published his agenda for a second term under the title “President Trump: Fighting for You!” This agenda is much shorter than a normal election platform. In 54 bullet points Trump lays out his main priorities in twitter-like prose. This agenda clearly fits Trump, but how well does it fit the Republican Party, and how much does this agenda deviate from the 2016 election platform that the Republican National Congress re-published for this election?

What is most important to the party versus what is most important to Trump?

We have analyzed both documents with the content-analytical tools of the Manifesto Project. For this analysis each statement in the document is sorted into one of 56 policy categories. This allows us to define how strongly a party (here the Republicans in 2016 versus Trump in 2020) emphasizes different topics. The underlying idea is that the more a party talks about a specific issue, the more salient this issue is to the party.

If we compare the most salient issues between the 2016 Republicans platform and the 2020 Trump agenda we find stark differences (see figure 1).

own calculations

The graph shows the ten top priorities in the 2016 platform and the 2020 Trump agenda. While there clearly are overlaps and some of the issues have been high up on the agenda in both years, there are obvious differences with regard to the top priorities.

Free market, civil liberties, and traditional family values – top priorities in the 2016 election platform

The three most important issues in the 2016 platform are free market economy, freedom & human rights, and traditional morality. Each of these issues makes up about 8 to 10 percent of the Republican’s 2016 election platform. By highlighting these issues, the party clearly creates a traditional conservative profile, fostering liberal positions on the economy and taking a traditional, conservative stance on societal issues.

This means that the Republican Party supports a free market mostly free of state interventions (e.g. “Government cannot create prosperity, though government can limit or destroy it”) and upholds individual freedoms against the state (e.g. “Our First Amendment rights are not given to us by the government but are rights we inherently possess” and “We uphold the right of individuals to keep and bear arms, a natural inalienable right that predates the Constitution and is secured by the Second Amendment”). With regard to family life and religion it supports traditional values (e.g. “Traditional marriage and family, based on marriage between one man and one woman, is the foundation for a free society and has for millennia been entrusted with rearing children and instilling cultural values.”).

These issues are less important in Trump’s agenda. Although they still are among the 10 most important issues they only take up about half of the space in the 2020 agenda compared to what they occupied in the 2016 platform.

Covid-19, protectionism, and a strong police – Trump’s top priorities in his 2020 agenda

The topic which is most salient in Trump’s 2020 agenda is welfare state positive, which 17% of the statements concern. This category subsumes all areas of welfare policy, e.g. social security, health policy, and pension systems. The fact that it features so prominently in Trump’s agenda is mostly due to points made with regard to health care. This is not surprising given the pandemic. A whole section titled “ERADICATE COVID-19” is devoted to this issue and specific demands are articulated: “Develop a Vaccine by The End Of 2020. Make All Critical Medicines and Supplies for Healthcare Workers in The United States. Refill Stockpiles and Prepare for Future Pandemics.” But the agenda also contains a section on “HEALTHCARE”, which covers more general points, e.g. cutting prices for prescription drugs, lowering healthcare insurance premiums and – rather broadly – “Protect Social Security and Medicare and Provide World-Class Healthcare and Services”.

For the other two topics that dominate the agenda, Trump’s individual influence becomes obvious. Protectionism positive is the topic for which the saliency increased strongest between 2016 and 2020. While four years ago less than 1% of the Republican’s manifesto addressed this topic, in 2020 13.5% of Trump’s agenda is devoted to protectionism. In 2016 protectionist statements mainly concerned trade agreements. In 2020 the protectionist agenda mainly consists of relatively general statements, to keep and protect jobs in America or to give tax credits for products “Made in America”. However many statements address the opposition towards China directly and very specifically (the section is also titled “END OUR RELIANCE ON CHINA”). There are demands to “Bring Back 1 Million Manufacturing Jobs from China”, to give “Tax Credits for Companies that Bring Back Jobs from China” and that “No Federal Contracts for Companies who Outsource to China”.

The third issue that is very prominent in 2020 is law and order, for which the saliency increased by 10 percentage points between 2016 and 2020. Four years ago topics like immigration law, stricter law enforcement in general, drug abuse and cyber security fell into this category. In 2020, the focus lies with two topics. In the section “DEFEND OUR POLICE”, Trump calls for full funding of and more personnel for the police and increased criminal penalties for assaults on law enforcement officers. He wants to prosecute “Drive-By Shootings as Acts of Domestic Terrorism”, defines Antifa as a “Violent Extremist Group” which shall be brought to justice and wants to “End Cashless Bail”. Other law and order statements concern illegal immigration. Trump demands “Mandatory Deportation for Non-citizen Gang Members” and wants to “Dismantle Human Trafficking Networks”. Moreover, he wants to “End Sanctuary Cities”.

Of these priorities in the Trump agenda, only one was of special importance to the Republicans in 2016: law and order was the 8th most important issue in the 2016 platform. The strong emphasis on welfare state positive (here mainly health care) and protectionism positive marks a strong divide from the Republicans platform. While these two issues make up over 16 and 13 percent, respectively, of the Trump agenda, they did not play a major role in the 2016 platform.

… and what is missing in Trump’s 2020 agenda?

But it is not only the top priorities that contain information about a party’s and a candidate’s agenda. In fact, the opposite can also be very revealing: namely what is left out. Not mentioning issues can also be regarded as an action. Of course it might simply be a result of the lack of importance of an issue, but it might also be a sign of ambiguity because of heterogeneous preferences within the party or among its voters, or its avoidance might be motivated by the intent to not make a competitor’s issues salient.

In comparison to the 2016 Republican platform, not only have previously important issues been toned down (as has already been mentioned), but some of them cannot be found at all. There are no mentions of equality positive (social justice, fair treatment of all people), internationalism positive (international co-operation, international aid), market regulation, decentralization, agriculture positive, and non-economic demographic groups. All of these issues play a more important role in 2016, and have consistently been emphasized in the long-term agenda of the Republicans since 1945 – perhaps only with the slight exception of market regulation. Compared to this long-term agenda the exclusion of topics such as economic orthodoxy and government administration efficiency is remarkable.

But of course 2020 is not 2016, which has its own pressing issues. Covid-19 obviously received a high share of the agenda’s attention, but neither the black lives matter movement nor gender equality are picked up in a direct or indirect way. Similarly, there are no comments regarding the increasing polarization of society or attempts to speak to society as a whole.

Trump versus Trump – a continuation of Twitter into his 2020 agenda

The 2020 agenda seems overall to be marked by discontinuity rather than by continuity, when compared to the 2016 election platform. To some extent that might not be a huge surprise, with Trump being a distinctly unusual Republican candidate. A different way to put his agenda into perspective is by comparing it to Trump himself. To look for Trump’s previous agenda priorities, the most obvious medium to turn to is Twitter.

Twitter is probably the most important medium for Trump. Few political leaders are as closely associated with and perceived through their tweets in the public eye as much as Trump. What are the agenda items that Trump has communicated most extensively and prominently to the public via Twitter, and what are new, unexpected items?

We have used a text similarity measure and a data set of all previous Trump tweets to search for tweets that address topics that are now part of his political agenda. Of course this doesn’t work perfectly, but it can give an idea of which content has been central to his agenda for a long time and which points are new or unexpected.

The expected – major Twitter talking points

Trump’s 2020 agenda contains many items that are well known from his Twitter feed. It is not surprising that the first main topic in his second term agenda is explicitly about jobs. Many tweets praising his creation of hundreds of thousands of jobs during his term of office go hand in hand with the promise of many new jobs in future years. Even before his presidential term he boasted as an entrepreneur about the tens of thousands of jobs he provides with his companies. In the same vein, the protection and return of jobs is a recurring theme of his tweets – both when he criticizes planned trade agreements with other countries such as Japan, and when he announces the relocation of production sites back to the USA.

In the same manner it does not come as a surprise that Trump gives specific prominence to China as an agenda topic, considering the frequency with which China is mentioned in his tweets. All of the points he addresses in his agenda regarding China can be found in his twitter timeline: both on Twitter and in the 2020 agenda he claims that China steals jobs and companies from the American people, treats the USA unfairly in trade relations and is to blame for the outbreak of the Corona pandemic, which he regularly calls the “China Virus”.

“Illegal immigration” is another one of his prominent talking points. He usually links it with other topics and issues: for example, when he attacks Obamacare with the accusation that it provides health care to “illegal immigrants”, but not to veterans. In addition, he repeatedly blames immigrants for job losses, increased tax expenditures, declining public safety and the overburdening of schools and hospitals.

The unexpected? – low frequency Twitter issues

None of the items on Trump’s agenda can really be considered unexpected. But some of his agenda points appear much less frequently on his Twitter feed than others. For example, the “increased penalties for assaults on law enforcement officers”, the “prosecution of drive-by shootings as Acts of Domestic Terrorism”, and the “end of cashless bails” are all points for which we could find at most only a few, relatively recent mentions in his Twitter feed. Interestingly the low frequency of those points stands in stark contrast to his call to action against ANTIFA, which he frequently addressed in older tweets. Putting a stronger focus on the law and order issue with those new agenda points seems like an appeal to population groups with strong security preferences.

Also unexpected is the intention to “Partner with Other Nations to Clean Up our Planet’s Oceans“. While the other points of his „Innovate for the Future“ section are well known, such as the prominently announced establishment of a Space Force or the promised goal of a moon and mars landing, no example of such a plan can be found in his tweets so far. With its call for international cooperation and a better protection of the environment, the point seems out of place in both his program and his tweets.

Trump’s plans for a second term – a continuation of 2016?

Another document the agenda can be compared to is Trump’s „100-day action plan“ from October 2016. Published shortly before the election and with a length and style comparable to the 2020 agenda, this can give some insights on what his plan for his first term in office was, compared to his plan for a prospective second term. These two agendas have a significant common core of issues with their stances on protectionism, law and order, “Washington”, cutting taxes, immigration restriction, the constitution and high ranking judges, free school choice, and energy deregulation. What is missing in 2020 is the inclusion of a number of the prominent unfulfilled promises such as the „construction of a wall on our southern border“, though some of these, for example congressional term limits, are still included.

Strategic emotionalization, voters’ preferences, and demography

All in all, Trump’s program is not very surprising. Almost all of his points are recurring themes in his Twitter feed, especially jobs, China and “illegal immigration”, and it clearly targets his core voters. His extreme emphasis on law and order, welfare, and protectionism seems to be a strategic move to exploit electoral opportunities. It seems that his very selective composition of issues and emphasis is intended to replicate what brought him into office four years ago.

In 2016, he won the election because of support in the rust belt states of Michigan, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania, as well as Ohio and Iowa. Only if he is able to win these states again, he will have a chance at continuing his presidency. Or as CNN analysts put it, Trump will lose if Biden wins Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin, even if Biden does not win any of his targets across the Sun Belt, such as Ohio or Iowa. By putting emphasis on these three issues, Trump aims at non-college and rural whites, among which support for him is high anyway. According to a PEW report, Trump has a clear majority among rural voters, as well as among whites over 50 and whites with some college or less. White evangelical Protestants show enormous support of more than 80 percent for Trump. An absolute majority of non-evangelical white Protestants and white Catholics support Trump. The socio-demographic electoral basis for Trump can thus be subsumed under the labels rural, white, religious, and with some college education or less.

More than 60 percent of Wisconsin consists of white Christians, as well as 51 to 60 percent of Michigan and Pennsylvania. Voters in Wisconsin who voted for Trump four years ago were attracted by Trump’s messages on the economy and his promises to bring certain types of jobs back to the US. Putting emphasis on protectionism seems to be the means for the promise “Making America great again”. Protectionism speaks to those in the rust belt who have suffered from de-industrialization. In his presidential inaugural address in 2017 Trump coined “Buy American and Hire American“.

The welfare issues in Trump’s agenda largely comprise health issues. In times of Covid-19 this does not come as a surprise, and Trump speaks to the white Catholics, for whom health care is the most important issue (PRRI 2020 American Values Survey), and the white Protestants who care most about Covid-19. Thus, Trump cannot avoid the issue. However, Covid-19 and the health issues are even higher on the agenda of Biden voters.

The issue of crime is also addressed with reference to Protestants’ preferences. As the PRRI survey shows it is among the top three critical issues for white Protestants, and according to a PEW survey, about six-in-ten (59%) say violent crime will be very important in their 2020 decision.

The exaggeration of fears about crime, the insinuation of a golden future of the economy, and the claim to have done everything right regarding health and Covid-19 is a strategy that aims to emotionally affect voters, rather than have them rational consider their preferences. Emotional belief in what Trump says is the stuff from which his success derives. As CNN analysts show, the mobilization of the people in the rust belt is critical. It is not at all clear that higher turnout will be to the advantage of Biden – at least not in the rust belt states. In March 2016 Scott Adams, the creator of Dilbert, made six arguments building on each other, which explained why Trump would win the election. The last argument was “To bend reality, Trump is a master of identity politics — and identity is the strongest persuader”. Trump has performed a strategic move in that direction with his platform.

From conservative party politics to Trump’s hegemony

The differences between the Republicans 2016 election platform and Trump’s 2020 agenda symbolize more than a policy change. While the 2016 Republican platform can be seen as a traditional conservative platform, addressing businessmen and bankers as well as people with conservative moral values, Trump has shifted the focus to those feeling deprived by globalization and a modern, liberal and heterogeneous urban class. He reacts to and fosters the fears of his constituents by promising to keep their jobs safe in the midst of a globalized world and to secure law and order by pushing hard on immigrants and what he calls left-wing extremism. Even though this seems to mark a change in the Republican’s history, the 2020 agenda is a clear continuation of what can be expected from Trump based on his plans for the previous term and his Twitter feed. Most importantly though, by addressing the fears of rural, white, and religious voters, he is targeting the voters essential for his re-election.


© Tobias Burst

Tobias Burst is research fellow in the „Democracy and Democratization“ department at the WZB and part of the Manifesto Project team. His main research focus lies on the analysis of political language using „text-as-data“-methods.

© David Ausserhofer

Dr. Pola Lehmann is a research fellow in the department “Democracy and Democratization” at the WZB. She works in the Manifesto Project. Her research focus lies on political representation, political parties and elections and automated content analysis.

© David Ausserhofer

Sven Regel is a research fellow in the department “Democracy and Democratization” at the WZB and works in the Manifesto Project. His research interests are political parties, parliamentary behavior, and political geography.

© David Ausserhofer

Prof. Dr. Bernhard Weßels is acting director of the WZB’s „Democracy and Democratization“ department and professor of political science at the Humboldt University of Berlin. His research areas include the analysis of electoral behavior, political attitudes, the mediation of interests, and political representation in international comparison.

© David Ausserhofer

Lisa Zehnter is a research fellow in the Manifesto Project at the Democracy & Democratization department at the Berlin Social Science Center (WZB) and a PhD candidate at Humboldt University. Her research interests are populism, political communication and quantitative text analysis.

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