Hillary Clinton on Friday described Donald Trump supporters in what she acknowledged were "grossly generalistic" terms: "You could put half of Trump’s supporters into what I call the ‘basket of deplorables.’ Right? The racist, sexist, homophobic, xenophobic, Islamophobic — you name it."
Was Clinton right? It’s impossible to say what’s in people’s hearts and minds, but we do have a lot of evidence from a number of nonpartisan polling firms — such as Gallup, the Pew Research Center, Reuters, and YouGov — that have asked Trump and Clinton supporters about their views on race, religion, and ethnicity.
The findings suggest a great majority of Trump supporters hold unfavorable views of Muslims and support a policy that bans Muslims from entering the US. Most of them support proposals that stifle immigration from Mexico, and they agree with Trump’s comments that Mexican immigrants are criminals. And many — but not a majority — say that black people are less intelligent and more violent than their white peers.
Now, the polls find majorities — even mega majorities — of Trump supporters holding such views. But that still leaves out a lot of Trump supporters who don’t share bigoted or prejudiced perspectives about people based on their race, ethnicity, or religion. It’s likely many are genuine conservatives who simply support the candidate they see as more conservative. (Clinton herself said that the people in the "basket of deplorables" make up "half," not all, of Trump supporters.)
To demonstrate this, here is some of the best polling on Trump supporters’ attitudes toward Muslims, Mexican immigrants, and black people. Note that there was no good polling on views about gender, making Clinton’s claim about sexism hard to evaluate. Still, the polling that exists gives us a very good picture of Trump supporters — one that shows what Clinton’s characterization got right and wrong.
The majority of Trump supporters hold unfavorable views toward Islam
There is really no other way to say this: Polls suggests that, if anything, Clinton’s claim that "half" of Trump supporters are Islamophobic is an underestimate.
A poll conducted by Reuters and Ipsos in June and July looked at broad views on Islam, finding Trump supporters are more than twice as likely as Clinton supporters to have negative views of Islam. About 58 percent of Trump supporters said they have "somewhat unfavorable" or "very unfavorable" views of Islam, compared to 24 percent of Clinton supporters.
There has also been polling on people’s views of one of Trump’s most controversial proposals: to ban all Muslims from entering the US. Again, Trump supporters are very likely to support this idea. According to a poll from June by the Texas Politics Project, 76 percent of Republicans support the idea, versus 26 percent of Democrats. Notably, 44 percent of Democrats said they "strongly oppose" the idea, while just 6 percent of Republicans did.
The Muslim ban is a proposal that, as Greg Sargent reported at the Washington Post, even some Republican leaders and Trump supporters consider bigoted. House Speaker Paul Ryan, for one, criticized Trump’s plan as a "religious test" and "not conservatism."
The difference between Clinton and Trump supporters’ views of Islam may be driven by Trump backers’ elevated fears of terrorism: A survey from August by the Pew Research Center found that while 36 percent of Clinton supporters call terrorism a "very big" problem, 65 percent of Republicans did. Justified or not, these fears are likely driving the majority of Trump supporters to embrace discrimination at the border against a specific religious group.
Trump supporters have anti-immigration views
If any single issue has defined Trump’s campaign, it’s his anti-immigration views. And Trump supporters are very likely to share those views.
First, the controversial comments that launched Trump’s campaign. At his very first campaign speech in 2015, Trump characterized Mexican immigrants as "rapists" who were "bringing crime" and "bringing drugs" to the US. A poll by Fox News asked voters back in July 2015 about these comments — and Republicans were much more likely to find them acceptable. About 70 percent said that, setting aside Trump’s wording, his comments were basically right, compared to 25 percent of Democrats. And a later poll by the Pew Research Center found about half of Trump supporters link undocumented immigrants to more crime than US citizens, versus 13 percent of Clinton supporters.
Trump has made many more controversial remarks since then, but another sticks out: when he said that Judge Gonzalo Curiel should recuse himself from a Trump University case explicitly because of his Mexican heritage. House Speaker Paul Ryan said that such remarks met the "textbook definition of a racist comment."
Nonetheless, Republicans were much more likely to agree with Trump’s comments: According to a poll conducted in June by YouGov, 43 percent of Republicans said Trump was right to complain about Curiel, while 39 percent said he was wrong. In comparison, only 8 percent of Democrats said Trump was right, versus 81 percent who said he was wrong. And 17 percent of independents said Trump was right, compared to 49 percent who said he was wrong.
Generally, this reflects Trump supporters’ anti-immigrant views: A poll from September by CNN and ORC International found that 73 percent of Republicans support building a wall at the US-Mexico border, compared to 13 percent of Democrats.
But the phrase "anti-immigrant" is really a misnomer here. Would Trump supporters oppose immigration from, say, the United Kingdom? Or is the worry more a cultural one — in which Trump supporters really oppose the immigration of Mexicans?
Vox’s Dara Lind parsed some of the research in this area. She found that some people who don’t like illegal immigration really do just have a problem with the rule-breaking — they think people should follow the country’s immigration laws. But a plurality, Lind noted, care more about whether immigrants are "like them":
For many white Americans — the Republican Party's most important constituency, in both the primaries and the general election — immigration isn't as simple as legal versus illegal. Their primary concern is preserving American culture. …
Surprisingly, [Matthew] Wright and his co-authors found that it wasn't common for Americans to care some about an immigrant's legal status. Either they accepted (or rejected) every single hypothetical unauthorized immigrant, or they accepted unauthorized immigrants about as often as legal immigrants — which is to say, they didn't care about legal status at all.
Most of these weren't open-border supporters who accepted every immigrant they were asked about. They were just looking at other factors: employment, education, religion, and national origin. An unauthorized Christian immigrant fared better than a legal Muslim one. An unauthorized immigrant from France fared better than a legal immigrant from Mexico, but an unauthorized immigrant from Mexico fared better than a legal immigrant from Somalia.
It is difficult to tease this out to see exactly how it applies to Trump supporters. But we do know, based on an analysis by Jonathan Roswell at Gallup, that Trump backers are more likely to live in areas that are farther from Mexico and have smaller Mexican populations. That suggests Trump supporters are generally people who live in native, white communities and may, perhaps, fear those communities are changing.
This is why a Trump surrogate warned that if Clinton wins the election, there will be "taco trucks every corner." The worry isn’t that delicious food will be everywhere, but that the cultural makeup of America will dramatically change if the country maintains policies that are friendlier to immigration — and it will change to a culture that Trump regularly describes, as he did at the launch of his campaign, as dangerous and criminal.
A Pew Research Center survey from April and May demonstrated this: The biggest factor associated with "warmer feelings" toward Trump was the sentiment that a "growing number of newcomers from other countries threatens US values." That surpassed identifying as a Republican, worries about Islam, and fears over minority Americans’ population growth in signifying the likelihood of backing Trump.
This complicates Clinton’s claim that up to half of Trump supporters are "xenophobic." They aren’t in the sense that they don’t seem to mind a French immigrant, even an undocumented one. But many are potentially xenophobic in the sense that they fear Mexican — and perhaps other Latino — immigrants, because of the cultural impact such immigrants may have on America.
Trump supporters are more likely to have negative views of black people
It’s perhaps no surprise that Trump supporters are more likely to hold anti-Muslim, anti-Mexican views. After all, that’s largely what Trump has built his campaign on. But what about more conventional views on race, particularly regarding black people?
Here, too, polls have found that Trump supporters are more likely to hold racist views — although in this case, Clinton’s estimate of half would be too high.
A poll from March and April by Reuters and Ipsos took a close look at this issue. It found that Trump supporters are more likely to say that, compared to white people, black people are viewed by Trump supporters as less intelligent, more lazy, more rude, more violent, and more criminal. About 40 to 50 percent of Trump supporters held at least one of these views, while fewer than 35 percent of Clinton supporters did.
Clinton supporters’ numbers are still alarmingly high — nearing one-third of all Clinton supporters on some questions. But her supporters are still less likely to hold prejudiced views against black people than Trump supporters.
Other surveys have looked at more subtle ideas surrounding race, measured in what sociologists call "racial resentment." Basically, researchers ask about other issues — whether one supports affirmative action for black people, whether police treat black people unfairly, and so on — to look for signs of resentment against black Americans.
By this metric, Trump supporters are also way ahead of Clinton supporters: An analysis from Daniel Byrd and Loren Collingwood found white Trump supporters are much more likely to show high levels of racial resentment than Clinton’s white supporters.
Again, white Clinton — and Bernie Sanders — supporters still show fairly high levels of racial resentment, as do white Americans generally. But Trump supporters are simply at another level.
This doesn’t prove that a majority or even half of Trump supporters are racist. But these views are much more prominent among the Republican nominee’s supporters than those who back the Democrat in the presidential race.
Some Trump supporters are conservatives who feel they have no choice but to support Trump
Clinton’s comments do pose a substantive problem, though: While it is easy, given the nature of Trump’s rhetoric, to characterize his supporters as racist or bigoted, the fact is that a great many of them are people who don’t hold any explicitly prejudiced views but feel like they don’t have a choice but to support Trump in November.
New York Times columnist Ross Douthat, a conservative, captured this well in a series of tweets earlier this year. He suggested, "There is a growing sense among liberals now that it's simply obvious that anti-Trump conservatives should and indeed must support [Hillary Clinton]. There are plausible arguments that they're right. BUT: I think liberals could profit from imagining how they themselves would react were the shoe on the other foot. That is, imagine a ‘Trump of the left’ as the Democratic nominee."
It’s difficult, by Douthat’s admission, to come up with a perfect analogue here, given that Democrats are simply less likely to hold prejudiced views, based on all the polling explained above. But what if Democrats were stuck with a candidate who has racist views — but is also the only viable candidate who wouldn’t cut taxes for the wealthy, would make sure there aren’t cuts to Social Security and Medicaid, and would support welfare programs for the poor?
There are many Republicans stuck in this kind of position. They see Clinton as unelectable due to her views on the size of government, taxes, the economy, and so on. And although they don’t agree with Trump’s Muslim ban or anti-immigration views, they see him as the lesser of two evils.
House Speaker Paul Ryan falls in this category. He has repeatedly criticized Trump’s offensive remarks, but he still supports Trump for president — because he sees the Republican nominee as his best shot at implementing all the economic policy that he cares about.
As Ryan said, "Do I believe that Hillary Clinton is the answer? No, I do not." He went on, suggesting he and Trump "have more common ground on the policy issues of the day, and we have more likelihood of getting our policies enacted with him than we do with her."
As the polling suggests, only a minority of Trump supporters appear to be cleanly in this category — those who hold conservative views on the economy, but no bigoted views on race, ethnicity, and religion. Indeed, an analysis by political scientist Philip Klinkner found that attitudes toward race and religion are a better way to predict support for Trump than views toward the economy and trade:
[M]oving from the least to the most resentful view of African Americans increases support for Trump by 44 points, those who think Obama is a Muslim (54 percent of all Republicans) are 24 points more favorable to Trump, and those who think the word "violent" describes Muslims extremely well are about 13 points more pro-Trump than those who think it doesn't describe them well at all.
This compares with an 11-point difference between those who are most opposed to free trade deals and those who are most in favor, and a 23-point gap between those who think the economy had gotten much better and those who think it had gotten much worse in the previous year.
But some Trump supporters don’t fall into this framework — and even those who do won’t necessarily see themselves as racist or bigoted. That’s why Clinton’s remarks drew so much controversy over the weekend: While they may be technically right in some sense, they are — even by her own admission — grossly generalizing about a lot of Americans.