Most Americans engage with the civic lives of their communities at least a few times a year. Maybe they’re part of a book club, or a neighborhood association. Perhaps they belong to a sports team, or the local PTA.
Most, but not all. The Americans who are civically disengaged—who seldom, or never, participate in such activities—are in many ways distinct from their neighbors. On average, they earn lower incomes; they’re less well-educated; they’re more financially distressed; and they’re less likely to attend religious services. And most of Donald Trump’s support is drawn from their ranks.
Those conclusions are taken from a new PRRI / The Atlantic poll. It finds that among voters who identify with or lean toward the Republican Party, Trump draws 37 percent support, to Ted Cruz’s 31 percent. But among the same voters, 50 percent of those who are civically disengaged back Trump, while just 24 percent favor Cruz.
That gap parallels another much-remarked split, between Republicans who attend church on a regular basis, who tend to favor Cruz, and those who seldom or never attend, who back Trump. But the poll shows that religious attendance is not the whole story. “The singular focus on religious affiliation has masked the more general influence of civic integration,” said Robert P. Jones, who directed the poll for the Public Religion Research Institute.
That is, regular churchgoing may be a useful differentiator less because of its content—it tracks with religious beliefs—than because it signals that churchgoers are embedded within a vibrant community. “Measuring civic integration with a non-religious measure has the advantage of being less ideologically loaded,” said Jones. “While there are strong correlations between ideology and religious attendance, ideology has a much weaker relationship to non-religious civic participation.”
This is, from one perspective, a tribute to the success of Trump’s campaign. He has appealed less to the disaffected than to the disconnected. Voting is strongly correlated with civic engagement. As the sociologist Robert Putnam famously argued in Bowling Alone, levels of civic engagement have been falling for decades in the United States. “Declining electoral participation,” he wrote, “is merely the most visible symptom of a broader disengagement from communal life.” Trump has exceeded expectations, in part, by drawing so many civically disengaged voters back into the electoral process. And there’s some reason to believe that will have lasting benefits, reconnecting these voters with their communities.
But viewed from a more critical angle, it says as much about Trump’s failures as his successes. The modal event for the Trump campaign is a mass rally in a stadium—thousands of voters file in, take their seats, cheer their candidate, jeer at demonstrators, and then depart. But they don’t interact all that much with each other; it’s politics as spectator sport. Trump has often been blamed for failing to invest in the traditional infrastructure of a presidential campaign—field offices, organizers, local groups. But the truth is that most of his supporters seldom, or never, attend civic events or meetings. Organizing a traditional campaign around such a base is a tall order.
Trump has, moreover, struggled in states with high levels of civic engagement, whether because his appeal is more limited among the civically engaged, or because such communities are richer in institutions and organizations capable of rallying opposition to his campaign.
On the Democratic side of the aisle, it’s a different picture. Although Sanders and Trump are often grouped together as anti-establishment candidates, fueled by dissatisfaction with mainstream institutions, the composition of their support looks quite different. Democratic voters who are religiously disengaged skew toward Bernie Sanders, while Clinton and Sanders voters display comparable levels of non-religious participation. The religious divide may reflect other factors; Sanders draws strong support from younger voters, who are less likely to attend church, while Clinton draws overwhelming support from black voters, who are more religiously engaged than other Democrats.
Civically disengaged voters, who account for 52 percent of Trump voters, comprise just over a third of Sanders’s support. That may help account for another difference between the two men. Sanders has generally been at his best in caucus states. Caucuses are, by their nature, civic events. Sanders’s supporters organize relentlessly. They show up in person for the hours-long meetings at which delegates are allocated. They’re applying the skills they honed in other civic settings, and investing the social capital they’ve accumulated.
Trump, by contrast, has fared poorly in such contests. His supporters, it seems, are no more likely to come to caucuses than to other civic meetings. His campaign itself is in disarray, as Politico reports, and his backers haven’t taken the initiative to organize themselves. He’s done better, though, in primary elections that ask people to enter a booth by themselves and mark their support in secret.
Trump supporters are voting—but they’re voting alone.
Trump’s supporters are less civically engaged
More than half of Trump’s supporters say they seldom or never participate in non-religious social activities, including sports teams and book clubs. This indicates a good portion of his support comes from people
disconnected from their communities.
Seldom or never
activity group: 52%
Seldom or never
activity group: 30%
Source | PRRI/The Atlantic April 2016 Poll