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Understanding Donald Trump voters

Pollsters and the media failed to understand what motivated Trump supporters because they drew conclusions based on superficial questions.

“To truly understand, you have to care. If you care about what people think, it ends up being a very rewarding exercise.”

 That’s the short version of Anne Sorock’s explanation of what makes her research into the opinions and motivations of Trump supporters different than that of other political researchers. Sorock uses something called the “core values laddering interview technique,” an approach she learned while obtaining an MBA in market research from Cornell University.

Sorock’s core values research goes beyond attempting to understand what people want and tries to unlock the deeper values that inform their motivations, beliefs and choices.


Anne Sorock

This is important in the Trump era because many pollsters, consultants and journalists don’t seem to want to get to know their subjects. Many fail to understand what motivates Trump supporters because they draw conclusions based on superficial questions, which they use to make broad generalizations about their mindset.

To wit, consider a recent cover story in The Atlantic titled, “What’s wrong with the Democrats?” Author Franklin Foer tagged along to focus groups convened by Democratic pollster Stanley Greenberg in Macomb County, Mich., the famous swing county and birthplace of Reagan Democrats, shortly after Trump’s inauguration.

Foer reported:


“[M]embers of Greenberg’s focus groups spoke openly about being displaced by immigrants. ‘We need to take care of home first,’ one participant said, as if the immigrant neighbors weren’t also living at home. When asked to explain their greatest hopes for Trump, many cited his promise to build a border wall.”


Foer wrote that another participant complained that immigrants whom she waits on at the local Kroger store don’t even bother to smile. And another woman complained that when she went to sign up for Medicaid, “I’m looking around at all these people that can’t even say hello to me in English.”

From these quotes, Foer infers that these people are nativists who think immigrants’ presence in America is a “betrayal” of the “natural order.” He concludes that their “hatred of immigrants [was] racialized, paranoid and unshakable,” even though he concedes that not all participants held these views.

But there is no evidence in the quotes and attitudes Foer provides (if he had gotten more extreme quotes, surely he would have used them) that they hate immigrants, are paranoid, or feel the influx of immigrants betrays the natural order.

Foer draws this conclusion from the participants’ support for the construction of a border wall, and their frustration over walking into a room full of immigrants speaking in another language.

If that is the marker of a xenophobe then very few people wouldn’t be described as one. After all, former President Barack Obama has written, “When I see Mexican flags waved at pro-immigration demonstrations, I sometimes feel a flush of patriotic resentment. When I’m forced to use a translator to communicate with the guy fixing my car, I feel a certain frustration.”

This is not to say that none of the people Greenberg interviewed are racists or xenophobes or paranoid. Some of them might be. But we can’t know that from the questioning Greenberg did, and certainly not from the snippets provided by Foer in his reporting. Greenberg’s questioning is too superficial to draw conclusions about the fundamental values of the focus group participants.

This is where Sorock’s core values questioning is so valuable. In simple and broad terms, Sorock’s mission is to understand why people hold the views they do, and it all goes back to values. By focusing on values, Sorock predicted Trump’s rise before he was on most pollsters’ radars.

Sorock began employing core values research while working for Manwich to discover how to connect sloppy Joes sauce to the emotional core of why moms used it in their kitchens. She soon left and began applying the technique to try to unlock people’s political values.

Core values interviewing allows her to understand the heart of the consumer instead of just finding common threads among their choices.

In 2012, Sorock co-founded The Frontier Lab, which “uses behavioral science to explore the cultural landscape.” In a paper titled, “The Science of Female Trump Support,” she examined the motivating values of Trump’s high-intensity female supporters.

Sorock compiled 315 panel survey responses and conducted 20 laddering interviews over 120 hours with diehard female Trump supporters. She identified five main aspects of Trump that resonated with women: pride of country, relatability, safety, hope and empowerment. She created hierarchical values maps, which organize the psychological connections to a product, to see how the consequences and attributes of those values related to one another.

For instance, Sorock found that Trump’s female fans’ sense of hope sprang from their belief that Trump would achieve his campaign promises. This came from his resolve and his perceived ability to navigate the Washington political landscape. They also felt his energy, vigor and record of success in business gave them hope that he’d be able to fulfill his promises.

“Trump’s business experience also flowed into a feeling of hope as, according to women, it made Trump more focused on solutions as opposed to simply saying the right thing,” she wrote.

Sorock often asks the question “Why is that important to you?” as a way to move from the surface level to a more emotional level. She found that many researchers concluded that women voted for Trump because they were concerned about their husbands’ jobs. But jobs didn’t come up that much in the answers she was getting; she found that their deeper motivation for supporting Trump wasn’t about their personal economic situation, but more about of a desire to feel pride in their country again, something he instilled.

With values laddering, Sorock says, “You can’t swoop in with a survey question and get your statistic and leave.” When you spend more time with interview subjects and ask the right type of questions, it pays off. “It requires investment in time. You need to recruit carefully and listen. … You have to climb a mountain to reach these people.”

The pollsters, pundits and analysts have failed to understand the Trump phenomenon ever since it began more than two years ago. They keep getting it wrong, Sorock has written, because they don’t choose the “best methodologies for uncovering actionable and accurate insights about the hearts and minds of the American electorate.”

The best methodology, it turns out, begins with caring.

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