Why Are Voters Drawn to Donald Trump?

Interviews with the people who tell pollsters they are backing the outspoken billionaire

Sam Mircovich / Reuters

What do Donald Trump supporters like most about the billionaire businessman?

A new PRRI / The Atlantic poll illuminates some broad trends about Trump backers, showing that many of them want a candidate willing to “break the rules” to create change and are most likely to be concerned about shifts in cultural and gender norms. Several of the more than 275 Trump supporters who participated in the national survey agreed to speak in more detail about the 2016 presidential election. The interviews offer a closer look at how Trump has been able to attract such a devoted following in the Republican primary.

The interviewees vary in age, economic status, and political ideology. Not all of them hated Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton, for example, and each of them voiced concerns with some of the things Trump has said or the policies he has proposed. But a couple themes became clear: All of the supporters interviewed said Trump was unlikely to be beholden to Wall Street or the political class, and nearly all of them said they liked his willingness to say things that other politicians won’t. What in particular? For these Trump fans, it’s all about immigration. All of them cited his call to secure the border, although they differed on how best to do it.

David Osterkamp, 62, West Virginia

“He tells it like it is,” Osterkamp said when asked to explain his support from Donald Trump. A retired railroad worker, Osterkamp described himself as a somewhat conservative politician. He voted for John McCain in 2008 and Obama in 2012, and he said the president had done “as good as everybody else.”

As for Trump, Osterkamp said he particularly liked what the candidate has been saying about controlling the Mexican border. “Not deport everybody, but put a wall up,” he said. “He’s just saying things that other people would say but they don’t got the guts to.” Osterkamp had more concerns about Trump’s handle on foreign affairs. “I don’t know how good of a president he’d be on that, but he seems to know what direction to take the country in otherwise,” he said.

Who is Osterkamp’s second choice? That would be Hillary Clinton. “She seems to know more about stuff than most of the candidates do,” he said, citing her tenure as first lady, senator, and secretary of state. He’s not a fan of Ted Cruz. “I don’t like him,” Osterkamp said. “He’s an old buzzard as far as I’m concerned.”

Donald Hoskin, 77, Missouri

Hoskin has done well financially running a 700-acre farm after retiring from his job as a math teacher. One thing he said he likes about Trump is that “he’s financing his own campaign.” In truth, Trump has taken millions in campaign contributions in addition to using his own money, but his repeated boast that he is “self-funding” has resonated with voters like Hoskin. “He’s out of the Washington clique, if you please,” he said.

Policy-wise, Hoskin said he agrees with Trump’s views on immigration even though he believes his call to deport millions of undocumented immigrants is impractical. “That’s impossible. It sounds good, but it’s not practical,” he said. Hoskin said he likes the idea of a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border. “Well, I don’t know who’s going to pay for it, but somewhere along the line we’ve got to stop the damn drugs and slave labor,” he said. “All the illegal immigrants are coming over, and they say they’re doing a job no one else will do. Well, when they’re here, nobody else will do them.”

A Republican, Hoskin didn’t vote for Obama and said he would “definitely not” vote for Hillary Clinton. “I don’t believe she has any integrity whatsoever,” he said. (As for Ted Cruz, Hoskin called the Texas senator “a true politician: Sneaky.”) He complained about the nuclear deal with Iran—“asinine,” he called it—and he worried about the amount of money the United States was spending overseas. “Why do we have to be the world’s policeman? Why are we taking care of Saudi Arabia?” Hoskin asked. “They have all the money and we’re spending all the money and letting our infrastructure go downhill. At least I agree with Trump on that.”

Jack Bibiano, 20, Tennessee

Bibiano isn’t actually a Trump supporter: He voted for Rand Paul in the Tennessee primary and plans to vote for the Libertarian Party nominee in the fall. But he responded honestly in the poll by saying that of the current Republicans running, he hoped Trump would win the nomination. “The thing I do like is he’s not controlled by Wall Street,” Bibiano said.

Bibiano said he didn’t like that Trump is “scapegoating Muslims,” and he said he wasn’t committed to small-government conservatism. “That’s what we so desperately need—the government off of our backs, out of house, out of our bedrooms, stop telling us what to do,” Bibiano said. Compared to Trump, he said, Paul had detailed plans for how he would cut government and restrain the Federal Reserve. “Donald Trump’s just saying what everybody is feeling. But he doesn’t have an actual plan,” he said.

An aspiring musician, Bibiano was a devotee both of Rand Paul and his father, Ron. He said he “gave up hope” with the Republican Party after seeing the way Ron Paul was treated in 2012. But he could never vote for Hillary Clinton—“You just know she’s a criminal,” he said—and he said he couldn’t trust Ted Cruz. “He says good stuff, but I don’t think he’s a conservative,” Bibiano said. “Out of everyone in the Republican Party, if someone from that party had to win, I’d want it to be Trump, just because we don’t know what he’s going to do. We know Ted Cruz is going to sell us out. And Hillary Clinton.

“Maybe Donald Trump will stand up and be the best president ever,” he added. “I doubt it, but…”

Pam Rice, 46, Kentucky

What does Pam Rice like about Donald Trump? “He don’t sugarcoat anything,” she said. “There are things in America that are happening that shouldn’t be happening, and he’s the only one willing to address it.”

Those “things” are a reference to illegal immigration, and the people “coming into the United States now that get a free pass.” Rice said she doesn’t necessarily support mass deportation, but undocumented immigrants need to get right with the law. “If they can get legal status here and conform to the laws of America, I don’t see a problem,” she said.

A stay-at-home mom, Rice cares for a special-needs child, and their family relies on the income of her husband, who earns $1,600 a month working at Walmart. “We’re poor. We cannot get any help,” she said. Although the couple identifies as Native American, she said she has been told by welfare officials that they aren’t eligible for benefits that are available to “minorities.” “I can’t get anything because my husband makes too much money,” Rice said. “And if you think that $1,600 a month is too much to gross, then something’s wrong.”

Perhaps the policy that most angers Rice is Obamacare and its requirement that individuals buy health insurance. “How can you penalize someone when you can’t afford to buy insurance?” she asked. Her family is covered by Wellcare, a Medicaid provider, but she said the cost of medicine had gone up under the law. Interestingly, it’s one of the reasons she’s supporting Trump over Ted Cruz. “Trump is not a career politician like Cruz is,” Rice said. As a Texas senator, Cruz has made his name opposing the health-care law, even orchestrating the government shutdown over its funding in 2013. But Rice said he didn’t do enough. “He could have fought harder. He could have done something else,” she said.

More broadly, she lamented what she said had seen a shift in American culture over her lifetime, from a society that rewards work to one that doesn’t. “There’s just too many whiny people out there,” Rice said. “They don’t know how to work hard. They want everything for free, and the people that actually work and need help can’t get it. But the people who don’t want to work can get everything they want.”

Unlike the other interviewees, there wasn’t anything at all about Trump that troubled her. “He might be brash. He might lack tact, but he just spits out what he thinks,” Rice said. “He’s just blunt, and I think America has done without the bluntness. Everything’s been sugarcoated for so long they can’t handle somebody who is willing to speak the truth.”