Turns Out Trump Voters Aren't the Same as 'Conservatives'

A new study shows Republicans are way more divided on economic issues than we thought.
June 20, 2017, 4:00am
Photo by Mark Makela/Getty Images

Donald Trump is many things to many people, but he is also a lesson. During the GOP primary campaign, Trump wasn't shocking just for the crudeness of his rhetoric but the way he broke from normal Republican discourse. He was far more willing to flirt with outright white nationalism, but he also borrowed talking points from the left when attacking free trade agreements, famously promised "insurance for everybody" when discussing healthcare, swore he'd protect entitlement programs like Social Security, and dangled infrastructure spending. Republicans are supposed to tack rightward in primaries, prostrating themselves before the altar of self-reliance and anti-tax orthodoxy. Trump did the opposite, people loved it, and now he's president.

That might be an oversimplification, but a massive new study of 8,000 voters—called the VOTER Survey—sheds some light on the hidden division in the Republican Party that helped lift Trump to the presidency. Participants were asked questions on a variety of topics ranging from how they felt about Muslims and black people to whether they thought Social Security and Medicare were important. The resulting data offers a rare look into how Trump voters differed from backers of Hillary Clinton—and the existential questions facing the Democratic and Republican Parties.

One takeaway: There are fewer old-school conservatives than most people think.

"A lot of people will say they're conservative, but then you ask, 'Do you want the government to spend more money on education?' 'Well, yeah,'" said political scientist Lee Drutman. "'Do you want the government to spend more money on Social Security and Medicare?' 'Well, yeah'... So it turns out they're not actually conservative, but they'll say they're conservative because it sounds cool."

Drutman, who wrote one of the analyses accompanying the survey, used the answers from Clinton and Trump voters to create a pair of rough ideological axes. One measured how right- or left-wing a voter was on social issues; the other measured stances on economic issues. That led to a chart that was predictable in one sense: Clinton supporters had liberal economic and social views. Less obvious is that Trump voters were far more divided:

Chart via the VOTER Survey

To be sure, plenty of Trump voters are traditional conservatives who lean right on social and economic issues—many of these people also supported George W. Bush, John McCain, and Mitt Romney. But lots of others are socially conservative yet economically liberal, a category Drutman dubbed "populist." Trump supporters are more populist than other Republicans, poorer Republicans are more populist than wealthy ones, and people who cast ballots for Barack Obama and then voted for Trump are extremely likely to be populist. Drutman estimates that almost half of the Republican electorate could fit into this category.

As a candidate, Trump appealed to populists by basically promising to protect white people from both job-stealing immigrants and cuts to programs they liked. But as president, Trump has largely embraced a traditional Republican agenda. Though he killed the TransPacific Partnership—which had become a symbol of globalism and free trade and was probably dead anyway—Trump's economic policies have otherwise been mostly geared toward helping rich people. The American Health Care Act would result in many older and poorer people losing insurance and some of them dying as a result; Trump's proposed budget would take away money from programs that benefit depressed areas of the country.

As Drutman told me, Trump "filled a niche where there was a void," and spoke to voters who felt ignored. But when he got into office, he was more or less forced to fill his administration with bog-standard conservative politicians. (Whatever his actual beliefs, this was a reality the relatively populist Obama ran into back in 2009, too, when he seemed stuck with Clinton administration veterans.) "There was no set of Washington hands who had policy proposals, and positions worked out along these lines," Drutman said of populism. Plus, Republican donors generally embrace traditionally anti-tax and anti-spending positions, and few politicians want to go against the flow of money.

Still, Trump revealed a class of voters who weren't being served by Democrats, normal Republicans, or even Republicans on the libertarian end of the spectrum. "The question would be, are there politicians who look at this and say, 'Gee, we need to have policies that speak to these voters'?" Drutman told me.

Could a more polished politician, a Trump 2.0, run a similar campaign on the right that embraced populism and disdained the donor class—and then actually govern like a populist? Could Democrats find a way to appeal to populists on a purely economic level (in other words, without the whiff of racism) and gut the Republican base—as they have come close to doing at a few moments throughout history? Will Republicans finally realize that no one besides basically the Koch brothers and their friends wants the social safety net to be shredded?

Then there's the big one: Is Trump the end of something, or just the beginning?

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