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What Donald Trump gets about the electorate

Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump speaks at a press conference before delivering the keynote address at the Genesee and Saginaw Republican Party Lincoln Day Event August 11, 2015 in Birch Run, Michigan.
Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump speaks at a press conference before delivering the keynote address at the Genesee and Saginaw Republican Party Lincoln Day Event August 11, 2015 in Birch Run, Michigan.
Bill Pugliano/Getty Images

As the punditry attempts to make sense of the continued popularity of Donald Trump, the prevailing establishment narrative has been simple: He's an anti-establishment buffoon; he's channeling an angry mood; his moment will pass. But as Ezra Klein argued on Monday, this narrative may be wrong. What if Trump actually represents a sizable electorate that Beltway elites have marginalized?

The data on this is pretty clear. Put simply: While most elite-funded and elite-supported Republicans want to increase immigration and decrease Social Security, a significant number of voters (across both parties) want precisely the opposite — to increase Social Security and decrease immigration. So when Trump speaks out both against immigration and against fellow Republicans who want to cut Social Security, he's speaking out for a lot people.

By my count of National Election Studies (NES) data, 24 percent of the US population holds this position (increase Social Security, decrease immigration). If we add in the folks who want to maintain (not cut) Social Security and decrease immigration, we are now at 40 percent of the total electorate, which I'll call "populist." No wonder folks are flocking to Trump — and to Bernie Sanders, who holds similar positions, though with more emphasis on the expanding Social Security part and less aggression on immigration.

Is the electorate more multidimensional than our partisan narratives tell us?

I draw my analytical inspiration here from a series of papers by political scientists Edward G. Carmines, Michael J. Ensley, and Michael W. Wagner, who for several years have been probing survey data to show that the dominant left-right/liberal-conservative divide in American politics doesn't fit a large number of voters — some of whom are more libertarian, while others are more populist or communitarian. By analyzing preferences along both social and economic dimensions, the scholars argue that these voters have not been drawn into mass polarization. Instead, they conclude, "these citizens are more likely to shift their partisan allegiance in the short term and less likely to strengthen their party identification in the long term."

Carmines, Ensley, and Wagner examine this question with impressive depth and breadth, and I highly recommend reading their papers (or this shorter summary).  My goal here is much more modest: I want to understand how support for Social Security and opposition to immigration go together, and how much or little of the public is actually with leading Republicans on these issues.

Understanding this may help make sense of Trump's success — and why many Beltway elites may not be able to write him off as easily as they might like.

What the public thinks about Social Security and immigration

The data here come from the 2012 NES Time Series Study, which asks people many, many questions, including how they feel about Social Security and Medicare.

Two quick summaries can get us started.

The first looks at how people feel about Social Security:

  • Increase Social Security: 50.7%
  • Keep Social Security the same: 43%
  • Decrease Social Security: 6.2%

The obvious but important point here: Promising to decrease Social Security, as many of the Republican candidates are now doing, is a real loser with the public.

The second summarizes how people feel about immigration:

  • Increase immigration a lot: 4.4%
  • Increase immigration a little: 9.9%
  • Leave immigration the same: 42.9%
  • Decrease immigration a little: 20.5%
  • Decrease immigration a lot: 22.9%

Another obvious and important point here: There is very little support for any policy that the public perceives as increasing immigration.

But the real key is to understand how these two issues fit together. Below, I break respondents into a 3-by-5 grid based on the possible answers to the questions on Social Security and immigration, and report and visualize the percentages in each square.

Social security and immigration

(National Election Studies, graph by Lee Drutman)

Now let's break the electorate into five categories. In the upper left-hand corner, we have the populists in orange. In the lower left, the liberals in blue. In the upper right, traditional conservatives in light red. In the lower right, business Republicans in dark red. And in the center, moderates in purple. So if we limited ourselves to just these two issues, we'd have an electorate that looked roughly like this:

  • Populists: 40.3%
  • Liberals: 32.9%
  • Moderates: 20.5%
  • Business Republicans: 3.8%
  • Political conservatives: 2.4%

Again, the main takeaway here is clear: The two main ideologies in the Republican Party have very tiny support among the electorate.

So why are they the dominant ideologies among political leaders, while the populist perspective has been marginalized? The most obvious hypothesis is that these two views are the views of Republican elites —the wealthy donors who are eager to cut entitlements because they are worried about high taxes and are also eager to expand immigration because they'd like to have more potential employees to choose from.

If we break down these ideologies by income, then, it's not surprising that one group stands out. The average reported income among the business Republicans is $69,711 — roughly $30,000 a year more than the populists, the political conservatives, and the liberals, all of whom cluster around the same income. Moderates also tend to be wealthier.

income and ideology

(National Election Studies, graph by Lee Drutman)

If we look at who says they donate, note that the populists, who are least represented here, say they donate the least of all the groups. If these percentages seem high, keep in mind that these are self-reports.

donations and ideology

(National Election Studies, graph by Lee Drutman)

Finally, we can break down self-reported partisanship by our new ideological categories.

ideology and partisanship

(National Election Studies, graph by Lee Drutman)

Populists are the dominant group among all the Republican groups, and especially among those who identify themselves as strong Republicans and independents. Surprisingly, there is no category of Republican in which either of the two main strains in the Republican Party is dominant. This ought to tell Republican leaders how out of touch they are with their voters on these issues.

The populists have been marginalized — is this their revenge?

Obviously there are limits to this data. This is admittedly an overly simple approach to measuring ideology, focusing on only two issues out of many. For those who are interested in more on the multidimensionalities of public opinion, I recommend digging into the aforementioned Carmines, Ensley, and Wagner papers, as well as a fascinating deep dive into the complicated extremism of "moderate" public opinion by Douglas J. Ahler and David E. Broockman.

But limitations aside, if these two issues turn out to be salient for the months to come, the establishment Republicans — and the business Republican donors who support them — are in a very weak position.

This suggests that candidates who can take on the populist mantle on these issues will resonate with the preferences of a considerable share of the electorate. Given this, it makes sense that Trump and Sanders (the only candidates who don't spend most of their time sucking up to establishment donors) are the candidates filling the populist void — and winning support as a result.

This should not come as a surprise. As my New America colleague Michael Lind argued last September, what he called "the billionaire consensus" (primarily immigration reform and entitlement cuts) was having a hard time getting through Congress because it ran against public opinion. Late last year into early this year, political consultants were falling over themselves to predict a populist election.

As Democratic strategist Doug Sosnik noted last November, "Across the political spectrum, there is [a] growing populist push for a retrenchment from global affairs, with a renewed focus on the problems here at home. Americans are worried about the struggles of the battered middle class, whose real incomes have not improved in more than two decades. ... we will see populists from the left and the right increasingly come together to force change." Meanwhile, independent strategist Matthew Dowd said back in January that all consultants were "in complete agreement on the idea that there has to be an economic populist message." Funny, that's the same Matthew Dowd, by the way, who more recently said on Twitter that "trump's [sic] support has nothing to do with any issues." Looks like somebody has been spending more time with business Republican donors since January.

But beyond just understanding the potential for Trump's support, this simple analysis should tell us something larger and perhaps more profound about the American electorate. While the two parties may offer competing platforms, these platforms are often the product of what elites and active interest groups within the party want. Given the multidimensionality of public opinion, any attempt to reconcile political conflict along a single dimension is going to leave a considerable share of the public behind. But on the rare occasion that we see a candidate who can speak to that marginalized public, we shouldn't be surprised to see an enthusiastic public response.

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