Who Are Donald Trump's Supporters, Really?

Four theories to explain the front-runner’s rise to the top of the polls.

A crowd of people, many holding Trump signs, clamor to get Trump's attention, who is standing at the front of the crowd signing a hat.
Dave Kaup / Reuters

Who are the 49 percent?

Donald Trump is now the presumptive front-runner for the GOP nomination, attracting nearly half of Republican support, in the latest national poll. The peculiar allure of the Trump Brand has been documented, mocked, admired, and mourned. But what about his consumer base. Who’s buying this stuff?

The first story about the typical Trump buyer was simple: These were poorly informed voters, swept up by a modern circus act orchestrated by a mass-media-age P. T. Barnum with arguably worse hair. But Trump’s appeal has proved to be more than a passing fad.

The second Trump-voter story focused on the typical demographic breakdowns: gender, race, and age. Back in December, a Washington Post analysis found that Trump's support skewed male, white, and poor. The male-female gap was 19 percentage points (47 percent support among men versus 28 percent among women). He won a whopping 50 percent of voters making less than $50,000 a year, 18 percentage points ahead of his support with those who earned more than that amount.

But now that Trump has several caucus and primary wins under his belt, analysts have a better sense of who’s actually turning out to vote for him. Here are four features of Trump's constituency:

They Didn’t Go to College

The single best predictor of Trump support in the GOP primary is the absence of a college degree. In an analysis of Trump's blowout win in New Hampshire, Evan Soltas determined that the factor explaining most of the variance in Trump's support in New Hampshire was education.

For every 1 percentage point more college graduates over the age of 25, Donald Trump's share of votes falls by 0.65 percentage points,” he said.

Diplomas are what Ron Brownstein calls the “new Republican fault line.” In 2012, Mitt Romney struggled for months to consolidate support because, even as he had clear support among college-educated Republicans, he fared worse among noncollege voters.

Although white men without a college education haven’t suffered the same historical discrimination as blacks or women, their suffering is not imagined. The Hamilton Project has found that the full-time, full-year employment rate of men without a bachelor's degree fell from 76 percent in 1990 to 68 percent in 2013. While real wages have grown for men and women with a four-year degree or better in the last 25 years, they've fallen meaningfully for noncollege men.

Noncollege men have been trampled by globalization, the dissolution of manufacturing employment, and other factors, for the last few decades. In places like West Virginia, the mortality rate for middle-aged white men has grown since 1980, despite the fact that U.S. GDP per capita has quadrupled in that time. The causes are mysterious, but one outcome could be deep anger and political extremism manifested in Trump.

That has led to the second predictor for Trump support ...

They Don't Think They Have a Political Voice

If there were one question to identify a Trump supporter if you knew nothing else about him, what might it be? “Are you a middle-aged white man who hasn’t graduated from college?” might be a good one. But according to a survey from RAND Corporation, there is one that’s even better: Do you feel voiceless?

RAND tested several queries to clearly divide Trump’s support from his rivals. For example, they found that Trump crushes Ted Cruz among voters who both strongly believe that “immigrants threaten American customs and values" and among voters who "strongly favor" raising taxes on the richest American households. But voters who agreed with the statement “people like me don't have any say about what the government does” were 86.5 percent more likely to prefer Trump. This feeling of powerlessness and voicelessness was a much better predictor of Trump support than age, race, college attainment, income, attitudes towards Muslims, illegal immigrants, or Hispanic identity.

Trump has clearly played on fears of nonwhite outsiders by likening Mexican immigrants to rapists, promising to deport illegal immigrants and to build a wall between the U.S. and its neighbors, pledging to keep Muslims out of the country during the Syrian diaspora, and playing coy with his relationship with the Ku Klux Klan. But he has also told a simple three-part narrative to attract the despondent demographic: America is losing; Donald Trump is a winner; and if Trump becomes president, America will become a winner too. This Great Man Theory of political change, however, strikes others as potentially dangerous ...

They Want to Wage an Interior War Against Outsiders

Matthew MacWilliams, a Ph.D. candidate in political science at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, studies political authoritarianism.

The classic definition of authoritarianism implies a trade-off—more security for less liberty—but MacWilliams says it’s also about identifying threatening outsiders and granting individuals special powers to pursue aggressive policies to destroy them. The best predictor of Trump support isn't income, education, or age, he says. In South Carolina, it was “authoritarianism … [and] a personal fear of terrorism” that best predicted Trump’s support across the state.

Trump’s foreign policy, like his policy for anything, is a muddle. He’s cautious toward the Israel-Palestine conflict, yet he told Fox News he would kill the families of ISIS members to stop their advance, something awfully close to a public pledge to commit war crimes.

But it’s his domestic-security policies that have been astonishingly hawkish. He’s promised to shut down mosques, keep a database of Muslims, and round up the children of illegal immigrants. Indeed, when you put it together, Trump’s hysterical promises to protect his white in-group from nonwhite outsiders looks like race-baiting ...

They Live in Parts of the Country With Racial Resentment

Find a map of the United States and draw a thick red mark just east of the Mississippi and Ohio Rivers. That's Trump Country.

Although Trump appears to run equally well among moderates and conservatives in polls, Soltas found that, in New Hampshire, he dominated in more moderate counties. “For every 1 percentage point more liberal the precinct, Donald Trump's share of votes rises by 0.48 percentage points,” Soltas found.

According to the New York Times’ Nate Cohn, who used data from Civis Analytics, Trump’s support is strongest from the Gulf Coast, through the Appalachian Mountains, to New York, among marginally attached Republicans (possibly former Democrats). It is a familiar map for some demographers, since it’s similar to a heat map of Google searches for racial slurs and jokes. “That Mr. Trump’s support is strong in similar areas does not prove that most or even many of his supporters are motivated by racial animus,” Cohn writes. “But it is consistent with the possibility that at least some are.”

So Who’s Supporting Cruz and Rubio?

The conservative Senator Ted Cruz currently leading in his home state of Texas, although several late polls have Trump nipping at his heels. But he won the Iowa caucus, thanks to a strong (perhaps even strong-armed) ground game and the state’s religious voter base. Indeed, Christian religiosity seems like the strongest predictor of support for Cruz, by far. MacWilliams identified one clear “soft spot” in Trump’s support: weekly church attendance. Along the same lines, the National Review reported that “Cruz does well where people regularly go to church; Trump does better where they don’t.”

Senator Marco Rubio’s coalition has been more difficult to pin down. The establishment favorite carried zero counties in New Hampshire or Nevada. But there is an interesting theme to his small victories so far. In Iowa he won the majority of votes in five counties, including the environs of Des Moines (the largest city), the suburbs of Cedar Rapids (the second largest city), and the county including Davenport (the third largest city). In South Carolina, he won exactly two counties, which held the capital city Columbia (the largest city) and Charleston (and second largest city). So, on the bright side, Rubio has carried the five largest cities in Iowa and South Carolina. On the other hand, he has lost literally everywhere else.