The big, existential question for Republicans right now is: who are Donald Trump’s supporters?
It matters because this will determine the future, and the future prospects, of the party. I heartily agree with Ben Domenech, whose article on this just made it harder for me to fulfill my obligations to his publication, by pre-empting most of what I was planning to write about Trump for The Federalist. Ben argues that Trumpism would turn the Republicans from a “classically liberal right” to a European-style nationalist party that is “xenophobic, anti-capitalist, vaguely militarist, pro-state, and consistently anti-Semitic. If you criticize Donald Trump, it is exactly the sort of hate mail you should expect to receive.” If that happens, he writes, we would be “losing a rare and precious inheritance that is our only real living link to the Revolutionary era and its truly revolutionary ideas about self-government.”
I don’t think this is actually going to happen, because the “classically liberal” wing of the right is too big and too strong. The Republican Party just spent the last six years, during the rise of the Tea Party movement, absorbing a fair portion of the “libertarian” wing of the right, the Rand Paul wing, which I suspect has little overlap with the Trump phenomenon. More widely, the right has benefited from a long intellectual renaissance focused on the universal ideas on which America was founded, which has no need for what Ben calls “identity politics for white people.”
But it would help to have some more exact information on the size and composition of Trump’s supporters. That Trump will not be the party’s nominee is something we can (pretty much) take for granted. Too much of the party hates him, and not just the “establishment”—which critics like myself are somewhat comically assumed to be part of—but the rank and file and a fair portion of the punditry. Thus, we find that about a third of Republicans say they would never support him, far more than any other candidate.
So that leaves us to contemplate what will happen if Trump doesn’t get the nomination. Will he be this cycle’s Ross Perot, who runs a third-party campaign and scoops up such a large portion of disaffected Republicans and independents that he tips the election to a Democratic candidate who only gets 35% of the vote? Will he be this cycle’s Ralph Nader, who persists long enough to peel off a few percentage points of the vote, enough to tip the results of a close election? Or will he be this cycle’s Ron Paul (or Pat Buchanan), who has a loud and fanatical core of supporters and perhaps makes a splash in the early primaries, but is ultimately irrelevant to the outcome?
We can break the question down more exactly, looking at six categories of Trump voters:
1) “Low-information voters” who don’t really know much about Trump or his policies, but hey, he’s a celebrity, so they tell pollsters they’re voting for him.
2) Actual conservatives who like Trump because he’s a tough-talking “fighter” and a businessman who “gets things done.”
3) Disgruntled non-ideological independents who normally don’t vote because “it never makes any difference.”
4) Single-issue anti-immigration fanatics.
5) Archie Bunker types who normally vote Republican because they see it as the party of “identity politics for white people,” the ones who want the country to be run by and for “people like me.” These are the folks on Twitter and in the comments fields of my articles who extol the virtue of “European” immigrants, without realizing that “Hispanic” derives from the word for Spain, and that Spain is in Europe.
6) Outright racists who don’t normally vote because neither party has the guts to embrace White Power.
Obviously, if it’s mostly 1) and 6), we can expect the Trump phenomenon to flame out quickly. Group 1 is large, but their political interest is fleeting and they don’t tend to turn out for actual elections. Group 6 is, thankfully, quite small. And the more Group 1 actually hears about the people in Group 6—say, the guys who were inspired by Trump’s rhetoric to beat up a Hispanic man in Boston, or the guys shouting “White Power” at the Trump rally in Alabama—the more they are going to decide they don’t want to be on this particular bandwagon.
I think the same also goes for Group 2, the conservatives who want an uncompromising champion. The more his opponents hammer Trump about his ideological flip-flops and history of political cronyism, the more he mouths ill-informed and ungrammatical opinions, the more he becomes a cultural laughingstock, the more they are likely to decide that their ideological cause would be best served by a different standard-bearer. And it’s not as if this presidential contest provides no other options. Maybe not Scott Walker, who flubbed the Trump test by offering three different opinions on birthright citizenship in the space of a week. But Ted Cruz and Rand Paul are not exactly establishment sellouts.
At the very least, when it eventually becomes clear he’s not going to get the nomination, these voters are likely to be persuaded to back another candidate.
Group 3, the disgruntled independents, could cause trouble by encouraging Trump to mount an independent presidential campaign, but they’re not really “lost” votes for Republicans, because they don’t normally vote Republican. In fact, history suggests that third party candidates tend to steal away independent voters in roughly equal numbers from both parties.
So we’re down to two groups who are the most dangerous to Republicans in 2016: the anti-immigration fanatics and the genteel quasi-racists. There is obviously some overlap here, though it’s hard to say how much. You don’t need to dislike brown-skinned people in order to think Latin American illegal immigrants are the biggest crisis this country is facing, way more important than anything and everything else. But it helps.
The worst possibility is that these two groups turn out to be large and emboldened and unwilling to compromise now that they’ve found someone willing to pander to them openly. (I won’t give Trump the credit of assuming he sincerely believes his rhetoric on this issue.)
So how many of these people are there, how committed are they, and how bitter will they be if their newfound champion doesn’t win?
There don’t seem to be many good numbers on this, which is part of the reason the Trump story is so big. There are a lot of candidates who loom large during the primary pre-season precisely because no votes have been cast yet and there is little in the way of detailed and reliable poll data. So a candidate who is the favorite of the media (whether they love him or love to hate him) can be magnified in importance.
The only real hint at good data I’ve seen so far is quoted in a New York Times story:
Unlike most public polls, Civis’s relied on a list of registered voters that included their voting histories, allowing it to measure Mr. Trump’s support among those who regularly cast ballots in primary elections. The survey, which was conducted on landlines Aug. 10 through Wednesday and has a margin of sampling error of plus or minus four percentage points, showed Mr. Trump’s support at 16 percent among registered voters who identified as Republicans.
The polls that don’t control for voting history show Trump with more like 25% of the vote. His 16% in the Civis data is still more than any other single candidate, but that’s not really relevant. The non-Trump vote is currently split among more than a dozen people, but it won’t always be. As minor candidates drop out and Trump faces the top two or three alternatives, he could easily find himself in the shadow of candidates who command 20 or 30 percent of the vote.
I am assuming that Trump’s current numbers are more of a ceiling than a floor. Unlike most other candidates, he is already a thoroughly known quantity. Whereas another candidate could use 16% in the polls as a springboard to introduce himself to voters who don’t know him yet, everybody already knows Trump. If they don’t like him now, it’s unlikely he will grow on them.
Here’s another interesting item from that poll data: “Mr. Trump performed best among less-frequent voters. He had the support of 22 percent of Republican-leaning adults who did not vote in the 2012 general election.” This confirms that a fair bit of Trump’s support is from those who are swayed by his celebrity, or from the disgruntled independents—voters that Republicans won’t “lose” if the party dumps Trump, because they didn’t have them in the first place.
The final interesting item:
[Trump’s] support is not tethered to a single issue or sentiment: immigration, economic anxiety, or an anti-establishment mood. Tellingly, when asked to explain support for Mr. Trump in their own words, voters of varying backgrounds used much the same language, calling him “ballsy” and saying they admired that he “tells it like it is” and relished how he “isn’t politically correct.” Trumpism, the data and interviews suggest, is an attitude, not an ideology.
This is encouraging in one respect: it implies that a fair bit of Trump’s support is from my Group 2 above, the conservatives who want a tough-talking “fighter,” rather than the single-issue anti-immigration voters or the Archie Bunker contingent. Those other groups are more likely to be Trump dead-enders who will follow him through an independent challenge. While Trump’s appeal is based more on personality than on the issues, his cult of personality is disturbingly strong. The New York Times report observes that many Trump voters “don’t have a second choice.” And a Frank Luntz focus group of Trump supporters found that “nothing disqualifies Trump” in the eyes of his supporters. They are in it for the Trumpiness and don’t really care about anything else.
By contrast, the conservatives looking for a tough guy are going to be more likely to accept a second choice. So by the time we whittle off a little more of Trump’s 16 percent, he starts to look less like a new Ross Perot and more like a new Ralph Nader: someone who commands a few percentage points of the vote and can only make a difference if the race is really, really close, as it was when Nader peeled off a few thousand Florida votes from Al Gore in 2000 (though even then, it’s still not certain whether the Nader Effect tipped the balance).
In short, Trump is likely to be relevant only if the non-Trump Republican nominee ends up being particularly weak and uninspiring.
You don’t suppose there are any chances of that happening, do you?
Which is to say that perhaps the wise thing to do is to spend less time focusing on Trump and more time figuring which is the strongest, most principled, and most inspiring of the other nominees.