Moral Foundations Theory and the 2016 US presidential Election

Leda Nath, Nicholas Pedriana, Chris Gifford, James W, McAuley

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Moral Foundations Theory (MFT) argues in part that peoples’ moral intuitions impact their political values and behaviors above and beyond conventional demographic predictors. We test the theory by analyzing the 2016 U.S. presidential election. Our analysis, in part, is an attempt to replicate past findings that link voters’ moral intuitions to candidate choice. We surveyed university students at a mid-sized college on their moral intuitions and their choice for president. Results provide qualified support for MFT predictions on the effect of moral intuitions on individual political preferences. We present our analyses followed by a discussion of future research on voting behavior here and abroad.
Like prior election results, Donald Trump’s victory in the 2016 U.S. presidential election suffers no shortage of explanation and analysis. As per usual, voting patterns have been broken down along key demographic factors including income, education, gender, race, age, etc. Beyond standard statistical correlations, the “marginalized white working-class” argument (see, e.g.,
Hochschild, 2016) seems to have settled into conventional wisdom among citizens and the press. Recent research, however, casts doubt on a straightforward class explanation and suggests that the range of Trump’s support may reflect broader disenchantment with rapid global changes and
the perceived loss of national identity that cuts across economic status (see Walley, 2017). Building on this emerging research agenda, we think that Moral Foundations Theory (MFT) is one promising alternative for deeper understanding of politics and political conflict. Moral Foundations Theory (MFT) explores, in part, the extent to which peoples’ moral intuitions can help predict a wide range of political and cultural attitudes and behaviors. This paper makes a modest contribution to this scholarly project; we analyze voting behavior in the 2016 presidential election to test several of MFT’s key ideas and claims. We explore whether and to what extent voters’ moral intuitions—above and beyond standard demographic, class, and other control variables—can explain voters’ preference for Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)75 - 85
Number of pages11
JournalSociological Imagination
Issue number1
Publication statusPublished - 2018


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