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The 3 different things we talk about when we talk about “Trump voters”

Democrats don’t need to convert his supporters.

Aaron P. Bernstein/Getty Images

Donald Trump’s unexpected rise to power and eccentric behavior have spawned a boom industry in takes about why his supporters don’t care about this or that. We’ve learned why Trump’s supporters “don’t care that he’s lying” and “Why facts don’t matter to Trump’s supporters.” They don’t care about his sexual assault accusations, so it’s reasonable for skeptics to wonder if new stories about financial conflicts of interest or conducting foreign policy by Twitter will move the needle.

“Yeah, but his supporters don’t care about that” is an endlessly repeated refrain in response to any new line of criticism.

And yet common sense tells us that in a large and diverse nation with 330 million residents, there is no monolithic canonical form of a “Trump voter” any more than there was a singular “Clinton voter.” Hillary loyalists who backed her in the 2008 and 2016 primaries are a different group of people than Sanders-loving leftists who cast reluctant votes for her in the generally election. And both of those groups are different from traditional Republican-leaning voters who found Trump to be too much to bear.

In particular, when people talk about “Trump voters” it’s important to recall that there are basically three separate groups of people who it’s interesting to talk about. There are the Donald Trump superfans who helped him win the primary, there are the ordinary Republican Party loyalists who made up the bulk of his voters, and there are the marginal Trump voters who put him over the top.

Numerically, the Republican loyalists are the biggest group. Sociologically, the Trump die-hards are the most fascinating — the ones who tell us things about how American society is changing. But in electoral terms, it’s the marginal Trump voters who are the most important. And there’s no reason to believe they have much in common with the die-hards. In fact, there’s considerable reason to believe they’re not Trump supporters at all.

An election is a zero-sum race, and the 2016 election pitted two unpopular candidates against each other. Trump may or may not disillusion his true believers, but the real question for 2020 is going to be what happens to the Trump voters who didn’t particularly like him. Can he win them over with effective governance, or can Democrats get them to vote for their nominee?

Three things “Trump voters” might mean

Roughly speaking, vague references to “Trump voters” tend to end up falling into one of three buckets:

  • Trump’s primary voters: These are the true Donald Trump fans. The people who decided to throw tradition to the wind and turn out and vote to nominate a person who didn’t have the basic attributes of a traditional presidential nominee. That amounts to about 14 million people who voted for him — only 45 percent of Republican Party primary voters.
  • The typical Trump voter: This is a very boring but numerically large group of people — basically Republicans. Most Republicans didn’t vote in the 2016 GOP primary, and most 2016 GOP primary voters didn’t vote for Trump. But most of these Republicans who weren’t especially enthusiastic about Trump did what they do every four years and voted for the GOP nominee, just as Hillary Clinton coasted to easy wins in states like Vermont and Washington where the primaries showed her to have few enthusiasts.
  • The marginal Trump voters: Typical Republican Party voters are a much larger group of people than swing voters who defected from the Democrats to vote for Trump. But winning the votes of people who always vote GOP isn’t enough to make you president. The converts were small in number, but they made the difference between winning and losing.

All these groups of people are interesting and important, but they are interesting and important for different reasons. Mixing them up can lead to confusing analysis and unnecessary arguments.

Trump fans and marginal Trumpers are in different places

Looking back on my own intervention into the endless debate about racism versus economic anxiety as a motivating factor in the rise of Trumpism, I wish I had been clearer about this terminology. I should have argued that the core Trump fan base that powered him to victory in the Republican Primary seemed primarily voted by racial antagonism rather than an economic policy message.

The general election is another kettle of tea. Probably the least-controversial thing one can say about American presidential politics is that stronger economic growth helps the incumbent party’s presidential candidate, whereas weaker growth hurts her. Had the economy grown slightly more robustly in 2016, Clinton would probably have gotten slightly more votes and would probably be president-elect today. But to say that economic weakness helped Trump because he was the GOP nominee is a different claim from the argument that economic weakness helped Trump become the GOP nominee.

Whatever one makes of race versus economics in the primary, however, the key thing people should pay attention to is that the geography of Trump’s primary win was very different from the geography of his general election win.

What put Trump over the top in the general election was that he ran much stronger than other 21st century Republicans in the Midwest — including in three crucial states (Wisconsin, Iowa, and Ohio) where he lost in the primary. But during the primaries, Trump was bolstered by extraordinarily strong showings in liberal states like New York, Massachusetts, and California where he won popular vote majorities that eluded him throughout the South.

This basic pattern of primary and general election coalitions looking different is not unusual in American politics. Barack Obama won the 2008 Democratic primary thanks to his strong support in the Deep South and the Great Plains, two regions where he predictably got wiped out in the general election.

Boring Trump voters are very important

Trump got about 14 million votes in the GOP primary, a bit less than half the total votes cast and only about a quarter of the 63 million votes he ended up receiving on Election Day. The key to that path to 63 million lay in the fact that 61 million people voted for Mitt Romney in 2012 and 60 million people voted for John McCain in 2008. The vast majority of that extra 49 million votes that Trump picked up when shifting from the primary to the general election was simply the same old boring people who’d been voting for other Republican Party nominees for the boring reason that they are loyal Republican Party voters.

But even though these people are boring, they are also very important.

Important in part because on his road to the White House Trump ditched some significant longtime GOP policy positions. He ran as a defender of Social Security and Medicare, two key legacies of iconic Democratic Party presidents of the past. And while it’s unlikely that his new “soft on Russia” foreign policy was a key vote-getter, it did help earn him the tactical collaboration of pro-Russian hackers whose efforts boosted his campaign.

Clinton’s campaign, meanwhile, deliberately downplayed many traditional partisan themes in an effort to secure the votes of traditionally Republican-leaning white college educated women with a message focused on personalities.

This strategy had some success, but not nearly as much as Clinton had been hoping for. The final conclusion that Trump got the votes of the vast majority of Republicans, while boring, is genuinely critical to understanding the dynamics of the campaign. At his lowest moments, the solidity of Trump’s coalition was genuinely in doubt. And the fact that it didn’t work underscores, in part, the extent to which Clinton was hurt by her own idiosyncratic weaknesses related to email server management and the FBI.

Marginal voters don’t like Trump

Last but by no means least, various claims of the form “Trump’s supporters don’t or won’t care about X,” while probably true of Trump’s core fans, don’t apply to the marginal voters who put Trump over the top.


Indeed, exit polls show that a staggering 60 percent of voters said they had an unfavorable view of Trump on Election Day. Clinton’s problem was that she only got 77 percent of the votes of Trump-disapprovers, likely because her own favorable ratings were also terrible.

Trump pulled off the impressive feat of crushing Clinton among voters who disapproved of both candidates, while another large chunk of them opted to vote for a third-party candidate.

The marginal Trump voter — and the median American — already doesn’t like him. He was able to win in 2016 thanks to a combination of third-party voting, Clinton’s unpopularity, and the quirks of the Electoral College. Under the circumstances, keeping up a drumbeat of criticism that “Trump supporters don’t care about” is actually a perfectly reasonable strategy.

There’s no particular need to find a magic formula to lift the scales from the eyes of Trump’s biggest supporters or to shatter his stranglehold and Republican Party loyalists. Democrats don’t necessarily need to convince a single Trump fan to stop liking him. What they need to do is find a way to convince the people who don’t like Trump to support their nominee instead.

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