clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile
Donald Trump was supposed to be a flash in the pan. Instead, he's spent seven months leading the race for the Republican nomination.
Donald Trump was supposed to be a flash in the pan. Instead, he's spent seven months leading the race for the Republican nomination.
Joshua Lott/Getty Images

Filed under:

The Donald Trump phenomenon, explained in 21 maps and charts

Donald Trump is the Republican front-runner. And he's a dominant one. In New Hampshire, in South Carolina, and now in Nevada, he's won by double digits, winning all kinds of Republican voters.

The question is: How did it happen?

Trump didn't create a movement on his own. He is a symptom of something much deeper in American politics -- a reaction to a set of economic, demographic, racial, and cultural forces that trouble a subset of Americans far more deeply and widely than most of the media realized.

Here are the trends that contributed to his remarkable rise — and show how far he could actually go.

Trump's coalition is rooted in anxiety


Trump got his political start in the "birther" movement

Donald Trump's rise in the Republican party was precipitated by his embrace of the conspiracy theory that President Obama wasn't actually born in the US — something that a large share of Republicans still believe years after Obama released his original birth certificate and mocked Trump at the White House Correspondents' Association dinner.

In the campaign, Trump has turned similar attacks on rival Ted Cruz, arguing that his birth in Canada makes him ineligible to be president.

Image credit: YouGov


Blue-collar, less-educated Republicans are most likely to support Trump

The more educated Republicans are, the less likely they are to vote for Donald Trump. That's in line with the coalition Trump appeals to: white, blue-collar voters who are working class and middle class. In Iowa, Trump bested Cruz among voters with less than a high school education.

That matches up closely with a group that the Pew Research Center, in its most recent political typology, called "steadfast conservatives." These people typically have a high school education or less. They're much more likely than others to say that the US has done enough to achieve racial equality, and that immigrants are a burden on the country.

Image credit: Morning Consult


Trump has found the "missing white voters"

In the wake of Mitt Romney’s defeat in the 2012 election, most analysts immediately leaped to the GOP's extraordinarily poor performance with Latino, Asian, and African-American voters as a key weakness for the party in an increasingly diverse country.

But RealClearPolitics' Sean Trende offered a different diagnosis: Romney's real problem was "missing" white voters who didn't show up to vote. Trende's initial hypothesis was that these might have been evangelicals turned off by Romney's Mormonism, but deeper analysis showed that not to be the case. The "missing" whites were largely Northern, largely secular working-class whites.

Those voters are no longer missing. Trump has found them.


Trump's supporters feel threatened by immigration

The people who are most concerned about immigration are the ones to whom Trump holds most appeal.

You can see this split in attitudes about policy: A Pew Research Center survey in October 2015 found, "Among GOP voters who say they would be more likely to support a candidate who wants to deport all immigrants who are in the U.S. illegally, 34 percent support Trump; among those who would be less likely to vote for such a candidate, Trump draws just 13 percent."

But on immigration, attitudes about policy are often buttressed by attitudes about culture. And Trump voters are simply a lot more likely than other Republicans to, say, be bothered when they're around people who don't speak English.

Image credit: Public Religion Research Institute


Trump is playing identity politics with white people

Since the birth of the "Southern strategy" — appealing to racist white voters in the South to defect from the Democratic Party — the Republican Party has appealed much more to white voters than to nonwhite voters. But at least in recent years, that strategy hasn't relied on outright appeals to white racial identity so much as a policy platform that privileges their concerns.

Trump's supporters are making this subtext into text. Trump is practicing white identity politics — and his supporters are more likely than other candidates' to think that discrimination against white people is a major problem in American society.


Trump supporters don't care about experience

Pew Research Center

Republican primaries usually go to the "next in line" — the candidate who came in second the last time around and has, by definition, quite a lot of political experience. This held true with John McCain (second in 2000, nominated in 2008) and Mitt Romney (second in 2008, nominated in 2012).

This year, Trump is booming despite no experience in politics whatsoever. And he's leading Republican voters who think experience is less important than they previously thought. Before Trump entered the race, Republicans weighed "experience and a proven record" as more important than "new ideas and a different approach." Now those numbers have flipped.

Image credit: Pew Research Center

Trump feeds on racial anxiety, but he didn't create it


The US is becoming much less white

(Pew Research Center)

The US is getting more diverse, and nonwhite, non-Christian Americans are settling even in traditionally homogeneous parts of the country. To some white Americans, this is a threat to their way of life.

These anxieties often get expressed through arguments about politics. But fundamentally, some Americans believe that the core of American culture is being lost in multiculturalism.

Image credit: Pew Research Center


Republicans have become much more anti-immigration since 2010

Trump's campaign has been about reclaiming America for Americans, away from other people. When he launched his campaign, the "other people" were Latino (and particularly Mexican) immigrants — rapists, murderers, and other bad people who were being deliberately sent by the Mexican government to undermine America.

To many Americans, this was unforgivably offensive rhetoric. But it resonated with the large number of Americans who worry that immigration poses a threat to American values. Believing that immigrants strengthen the US is the majority opinion, and it's grown more popular among Democrats and independents over the last decade.

But it's grown less popular among Republicans — and Republican support for immigrant strength fell 15 percent between 2014 and 2015. When Donald Trump got into the race, the Republican Party was the party of concern that immigrants make America weaker.

Image credit: Pew Research Center


Americans are more scared of Muslims than they used to be

Trump's anti-Latino vitriol — and the media's outraged fascination with it — helped propel him to the top of the polls.

But as summer turned to fall, Trump slowly introduced a new villain into his campaign narrative: Muslims. They are coming to the US to commit terrorism as surely as Latinos were coming to the US to commit crime. By December, he was calling for an outright ban on Muslim immigration to the United States. Islamophobia is being more openly and violently expressed in 2015 than it has been for decades.

This poll, from the Public Religion Research Institute, shows a majority of Americans believe Islam is at odds with American values, up from 47 percent in 2011. Republicans are more anti-Islam than the average American: 83 percent of them think Muslims should be barred from the presidency.

And Trump supporters are more anti-Islam than the average Republican. A poll of Iowa Republicans found that 30 percent of Republicans, and 36 percent of Trump supporters, believed Islam should be banned outright in the United States.

Image credit: Public Religion Research Institute


Before Trump, Pat Buchanan and Ross Perot struck a similar tone

The spectacle of Donald Trump, mogul and reality television star, running for the presidency feels unprecedented in American presidential politics. But the electorate Trump is appealing to, and the way he's doing it, is nothing new. In 1992, populist Pat Buchanan challenged George H.W. Bush for the presidency. Buchanan, unlike Trump, focused his criticism on social issues, such as abortion and LGBTQ rights, alongside similar rhetoric on trade and immigration.

Both men ran on a brash, straight-talking persona. Both performed particularly well among Northeastern Republicans and men.

Buchanan ran again in 1996 with even more success. "All the peasants are coming with pitchforks," he said of his campaign — a line that might describe Trump supporters as well.


Trump's platform is working for right-wing parties in Europe

Outside the US, Trump's mixture of protectionism and harsh anti-immigration rhetoric starts to look a lot more familiar. Right-wing parties in Europe and the United Kingdom employ it and have seen success as a result. The United Kingdom Independence Party, which advocates for leaving the European Union, has been getting a rising share of the vote, even if it isn't reflected in Parliament. In France, the National Front was knocking on the door of controlling up to one-third of France's regions when unexpected turnout led to its defeat.


President Obama thinks economic anxiety can explain Trump — but it's deeper than that

President Obama and Bernie Sanders share an explanation for Trump's rise: that he appeals to Americans who are economically insecure. "Blue-collar men have had a lot of trouble in this new economy … it means that there is going to be potential anger, frustration, fear," Obama said in a December interview with NPR. "I think somebody like Mr. Trump is taking advantage of that."

Some commentators argue this understates the racial anxieties that Trump's campaign also stokes. Hispanic and black voters are faring worse than whites, and they're not flocking to Trump. But it's true that Trump's support tends to come from blue-collar, less wealthy white voters who could be attracted to his anger and frustration.

Trump threw out the playbook for a presidential campaign


Big Republican donors aren't bankrolling Trump's campaign

In one sense, Trump's campaign has been remarkably cost-effective. In Iowa, he spent just $82 per vote, according to the Huffington Post. Of course, he didn't win. But he spent half as much as Ted Cruz and ran only a few percentage points behind him. That's in keeping with a campaign that has spent little on advertising compared with its rivals. Trump spent $3.3 million in Iowa total, compared with Cruz's $6 million. Trump has a genius for getting on TV — he doesn't need to pay to do it.


Trump doesn't need ads — he has the media

2016 Campaign Television Tracker

This chart shows how much airtime Donald Trump has taken up since his announcement, graphing the percentage of media mentions daily that have been about him. The trend is clear: Nobody, except for Ben Carson during his brief boom, can get media attention like Trump. No wonder he doesn't need to spend on advertising.

Image credit: 2016 Campaign Television Tracker


Nobody wants to watch a debate if Trump isn't there

Republican debates have been more popular than Democratic debates so far. And that's partly because Trump, a television star, puts on a good show. When he skipped the final debate before the Iowa caucuses in favor of his own event with veterans, viewership fell.

Trump's support is broad — but will it last?


Trump supporters are all over the country

Trump's support is also geographically diverse. But he's particularly strong in Appalachia, Pennsylvania, and parts of the South, and weaker in the Midwest. This suggests that Trump's Iowa loss isn't particularly surprising — Iowa isn't Trump territory.

The New York Times, using a different analysis, found that Trump's support tends to correlate with the regions where people are most likely to search for racially charged terms, and where white voters are abandoning the Democratic Party.


Trump has support from all kinds of Republicans

Morning Consult

While some Republicans are more likely to support Trump than others, he's the dominant candidate among all groups. Trump wins men as well as women; he wins voters making less than $50,000 and voters making more than $100,000. Even among voters coolest to Trump, those with a postgraduate degree, he was still outpolling other candidates.

This doesn't mean Trump is universally beloved. He's not getting a majority of support from any group. But, at least so far, the anti-Trump vote hasn't coalesced behind a single anti-Trump candidate.


Polls actually understate how much support Trump has

A CNN/ORC poll from January found that 41 percent of Republicans support Donald Trump. That sounds like a high share of support, until you realize that even more Republicans think he'd be the best at handling top national concerns.

The poll found 60 percent of Republicans thought Trump would do the best job on the economy. Fifty-five percent thought he'd be the best to handle illegal immigration. When an earlier poll asked about ISIS (the January poll didn't), 47 percent said Trump would be best at that, too. And 63 percent thought he had the best chance of winning the general election.

This means Trump's support isn't mysteriously high — as Ezra Klein wrote in December, it's mysteriously low. There are people out there who think Trump would be the best person to handle important issues, or that he's the GOP's best hope to win the nomination, yet still aren't willing to vote for him.


Trump struggled to close the deal with evangelical voters

Turnout was supposed to help Trump in Iowa. But the voters who turned out weren't disaffected Republicans showing up to support Trump. They were evangelical Christians who voted for Ted Cruz.

According to NBC News's exit poll, 62 percent of voters described themselves as evangelical or born-again, and Cruz beat Trump among those voters. He also beat Trump among the 42 percent of voters who said "shares my values" was the most important criterion in a president.


Trump lost among voters who made up their minds at the last minute

Much was made before the Iowa caucuses of Trump supporters' certainty that he was their guy: 70 percent said they'd made up their minds. But Trump didn't succeed in winning over those who changed their minds at the last minute. The voters who made up their mind a month to a week before the caucuses chose Cruz. Those who made up their mind later, in the final days, picked Rubio.

Maybe Trump has gotten better at closing the deal: He's now learned the importance of a ground game to get voters to the polls. And maybe Rubio's disastrous debate performance will hurt him in New Hampshire. But the trend in Iowa in the days before the vote was against Trump.


Trump skeptics say he has a ceiling of support. But the ceiling is going up.

A popular argument by the New York Times's Ross Douthat, among others, is that Trump's support has a "ceiling." The people who want to vote for him really love him, but there are many other Republicans who never would. If Trump has a ceiling, though, the ceiling is going up. Before he declared his candidacy in 2015, the majority of Republican voters said they'd never support him. Now a majority say they could.


Why so many members of Congress are calling it quits


Hunter Biden’s new indictment, explained


Israel’s wartime assault on the free press

View all stories in Politics