Donald Trump's Silent Minority

He’s identified a bloc of culturally conservative voters who are to the left of the Republican Party on economics. But is it enough to win the nomination?

Brian Frank / Reuters

A new Pew poll on the Republican race says several useful things about Donald Trump. For example: He’s still solidly ahead of the field in the race for the Republican nomination. The poll has Trump at 25 percent, followed by Ben Carson at 16, Marco Rubio and Carly Fiorina at 8, and Ted Cruz at 6. Jeb Bush, meanwhile, has taken a beating—sliding out of the top five, only a bit ahead of Rand Paul, who’s on campaign death watch.

Pew includes a very intriguing table that breaks out two major topics of discussion: immigration and raising taxes on the wealthy. Those breakouts show where the Trump boom is coming from and why many pundits think he’s reached the limits of his appeal.

Republican Voters on Immigration and Taxing the Wealthy

It turns out there’s a large, underserved bloc of the Republican electorate that cares a lot about deporting illegal immigrants and taxing the wealthy—far more than the rest of the GOP—and no one is speaking their language like Donald Trump. Sure, some candidates will talk nearly as aggressively about immigration, but none of them is quite as strident, and none of them combines that with a populist tone on taxes. (Tone appears to be all it is—despite giving what amounted to a stirring defense of progressive taxation in the last Republican debate, the tax plan he’s released since then would cut taxes on the wealthy as well as lower-income Americans.) Nor is Trump’s rhetorical populism limited to taxes; he’s also spoken out against cutting Social Security or Medicare.

This is all evidence that Trump’s appeal isn’t just about immigration, and it also isn’t just a reaction against bad times. (As Benjamin Wallace-Wells aptly put it, Trump is “an outrage candidate for good times.”) Nor can his appeal be explained away purely by celebrity, although his fame enabled him to make this pitch in a way a lesser-known candidate with similar views couldn’t have.

The Democratic Party has always had voters who were to the right of the party on cultural issues but voted for its candidates for economic reasons—blue-collar white men, often union members, for example. Some left the party in 1980 as Reagan Democrats. Pew’s poll helps to outline a mirroring phenomenon—culturally conservative voters who stick with the GOP even though they’re well to its left on economics.

Democratic strategists gnash their teeth over this demographic and complain that they’re voting against their best interests, but cultural concerns are a powerful motivation for voters. Meanwhile, some Republicans have warned that the party’s standard bearers risk alienating its base by allying themselves with big-business, which tends to favor looser immigration laws and wants lower taxes. Some Republicans—this cycle, Mike Huckabee and Rick Santorum—have even tried to pitch themselves to this bloc, but never going so far as to advocate higher taxes on the wealthy. They're just not as far left as these Trump Republicans.

But all of this also points to where the ceiling might be on Trump’s support. A majority of Republican voters (53 percent) are either less likely to vote for a candidate who wants to deport illegal immigrants or don’t care. And a vast majority of Republican voters—about two-thirds—are less likely to vote or or indifferent to a candidate who wants to tax the wealth (or can telegraph to voters that he wants to, his real policies aside). There are enough Trump Republicans to push The Donald to the top of the national polls, but unless the rest of the primary electorate remains badly fragmented, not enough to secure the nomination. Trump has taken to resuscitating the old Nixonian phrase “the silent majority,” but his problem is he seems only to have identified a significant silent minority.