This is, from one perspective, a tribute to the success of Trump’s campaign. He has appealed less to the disaffected than to the disconnected. Voting is strongly correlated with civic engagement. As the sociologist Robert Putnam famously argued in Bowling Alone, levels of civic engagement have been falling for decades in the United States. “Declining electoral participation,” he wrote, “is merely the most visible symptom of a broader disengagement from communal life.” Trump has exceeded expectations, in part, by drawing so many civically disengaged voters back into the electoral process. And there’s some reason to believe that will have lasting benefits, reconnecting these voters with their communities.
But viewed from a more critical angle, it says as much about Trump’s failures as his successes. The modal event for the Trump campaign is a mass rally in a stadium—thousands of voters file in, take their seats, cheer their candidate, jeer at demonstrators, and then depart. But they don’t interact all that much with each other; it’s politics as spectator sport. Trump has often been blamed for failing to invest in the traditional infrastructure of a presidential campaign—field offices, organizers, local groups. But the truth is that most of his supporters seldom, or never, attend civic events or meetings. Organizing a traditional campaign around such a base is a tall order.
Trump has, moreover, struggled in states with high levels of civic engagement, whether because his appeal is more limited among the civically engaged, or because such communities are richer in institutions and organizations capable of rallying opposition to his campaign.
On the Democratic side of the aisle, it’s a different picture. Although Sanders and Trump are often grouped together as anti-establishment candidates, fueled by dissatisfaction with mainstream institutions, the composition of their support looks quite different. Democratic voters who are religiously disengaged skew toward Bernie Sanders, while Clinton and Sanders voters display comparable levels of non-religious participation. The religious divide may reflect other factors; Sanders draws strong support from younger voters, who are less likely to attend church, while Clinton draws overwhelming support from black voters, who are more religiously engaged than other Democrats.
Civically disengaged voters, who account for 52 percent of Trump voters, comprise just over a third of Sanders’s support. That may help account for another difference between the two men. Sanders has generally been at his best in caucus states. Caucuses are, by their nature, civic events. Sanders’s supporters organize relentlessly. They show up in person for the hours-long meetings at which delegates are allocated. They’re applying the skills they honed in other civic settings, and investing the social capital they’ve accumulated.
Trump, by contrast, has fared poorly in such contests. His supporters, it seems, are no more likely to come to caucuses than to other civic meetings. His campaign itself is in disarray, as Politico reports, and his backers haven’t taken the initiative to organize themselves. He’s done better, though, in primary elections that ask people to enter a booth by themselves and mark their support in secret.
Trump supporters are voting—but they’re voting alone.