After a spate of recent setbacks, Donald Trump is coming home to New York, where he is expected to win by a landslide. As it becomes ever more likely that “The Donald” will win the GOP nomination (even if the convention is brokered), it begs the question: Who exactly are his supporters? While most assume that Trump backers are older, whiter, and poorer conservatives, these individuals share a wide range of less obvious traits. As support for Trump grows, the foundation of our political system is beginning to crack under mounting pressure—setting up 2016 as a landmark election year that could make or break either political party.
Though his support has cooled modestly of late, Trump is no passing fad. He’s in the lead for the Republican nomination with 743 delegates. Polls show he has a 7.8 percentage point lead on Ted Cruz for the Republican nomination. He even has a shot at the Oval Office. To be sure, Trump has higher unfavorability ratings than Hillary Clinton (60% versus 52%), and is losing badly in futures markets. But Trump is better at rallying support—all while hardly spending on ads ($11.5 million’s worth as of March, compared to Jeb Bush’s $80 million).
How has he done it? Trump’s success reflects a growing wave of populism that has come to characterize this election. Trump has continually touted his political outsider status as an asset—and many of his supporters agree. Untainted by partisanship, Trump’s unfiltered rhetoric resonates with voters who resent the political establishment. In a similar manner, self-described “democratic socialist” Sanders has performed admirably on the Democratic side. Even across the pond, populist parties are on the rise in parliamentary elections from Sweden to France.
Who are Trump’s supporters? Many assume these individuals are simply older, whiter, poorer, and more conservative than other GOP voters. But surprisingly, these assumptions aren’t entirely accurate. Among Republican leaners, Trump has roughly even support across all age brackets (with a slight upward blip among Boomers). A substantial share of minorities support him—particularly Hispanic Republicans (31%) who were hit hard by the Recession and want to end illegal immigration. Ideologically, Trump pulls support from voters across the GOP spectrum: According to a YouGov poll, only 12% of his supporters describe themselves as “very conservative.” Meanwhile, 20% of his supporters are “liberal” or “moderate.” He’s also doing about as well among evangelical voters (even better than Cruz) as non-evangelicals.
Are Trump supporters poor? In Iowa, Trump saw higher fractions of support in poorer counties. But income is just one factor. More interestingly, Trump supporters are more likely to live in counties with the highest concentration of individuals classifying their ancestors as “American” (correlation: +0.57). Other indicators include high concentrations of whites without high school diplomas (+0.61), living in mobile homes (+0.54), and working “old economy” jobs (+0.50). Based on these numbers, Trump supporters tend to be non-urban, blue-collar individuals (with a socially and culturally traditional bent) who stay in the same communities their families have lived in for generations.
Researchers have also found that Trump supporters largely overlap with the less-educated, middle-aged whites whose annual death rates are on the rise. In nine of the 11 Super Tuesday states, the counties that turned out to vote for Trump were the counties with the highest white mortality rates among 40- to 64-year-olds. Boomers are experiencing a widening health gap between rich and poor—with the latter increasingly afflicted with obesity, alcoholism, and opioid addiction.
According to social scientists, Trump supporters score very high on surveys that test for an authoritarian personality type. Authoritarianism is fundamentally motivated by a desire for order and support for strong authority figures in response to social stress. These individuals can be identified by their responses to parenting questions. When asked what they would prefer to see in their children (independence versus respect for elders; self-reliance versus obedience; being considerate versus being well-behaved; and curiosity versus good manners), authoritarians tend to select the more disciplined option.
Leading political scientists have observed that authoritarians generally sort into the GOP. But this has created an increasing tension in the party between communitarians who want social order and an America made “great” again and libertarians who champion a dynamic and borderless world in which government basically lets people do whatever they want.
Where does this lead? Generationally, Trump is the culmination of an anti-politics trend that has been building for the past 30 years. Anti-politics (defined as the process of ignoring other people’s opinions in favor of your own political doctrine and refusing to compromise until you get your way) has largely been driven by passionate and values-oriented Boomers. From the beginning of the culture wars in the late ‘80s, Boomers have turned the political stage into a battleground.
If Trump is nominated, he could trigger a major political realignment. While a Republican Party under Trump would likely see an exodus of white-collar professionals, it could pick up low-income and non-college voters from the Democrats. Trump has already indicated that he’s willing to move to the left of Clinton to get things done. Whether it’s developing massive employment programs to build anti-immigration walls or spending more on Social Security and defense, Trump’s vision of a big, muscular public sector could flip the GOP’s traditional anti-government platform.
Trump’s success or failure is a high-risk venture with lasting consequences for both political parties. For the Democrats, a Trump victory would likely mean that they have lost their white working class and will thereafter be tempted to run candidates from the far-left with little prospect of winning. For the Republicans, a Trump defeat would likely mean they have lost their high-SES voters—leaving the evangelicals and the NASCAR set to squabble over the GOP’s ruined remains.
At the end of the day, Trump’s political ascendance validates a worldview shared by many Americans. Win or lose, his political story has profound implications for the future of partisan politics in the United States—for better or for worse.