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Eye On Candidates
January 8, 2016

Who are Trump’s voters, and will they vote?

Donald Trump’s high levels of support in the Republican nomination contest has led many to ask a basic question: Who, exactly, are his supporters? Politico seeks to answer that question with a deep dive into the polling data this morning:

Donald Trump’s big tent

Republicans explain away their unwelcome poll-leader by dismissing his supporters as a loud but narrow network of angry white men and celebrity chasers.

It’s not true. A POLITICO review of private and public polling data and interviews with GOP pollsters shows a coalition that certainly begins with conservative, blue-collar men now extends to pro-choice Republicans, independents and even registered Democrats unnerved, primarily, by illegal immigration.

Indeed, the uncomfortable truth, for the pundits and fellow Republicans who turned their noses up at Trump, is that his appeal has spread over seven months so far beyond a rabble-rousing, anti-establishment rump to encompass the very elements of the American electorate the GOP has been eager to reach. And while it’s no majority, it’s a bigger group than anything the rest of the fragmented Republican field has galvanized.

The article provides great detail on where Trump draws his strongest support from:

Trump’s supporters skewed significantly against the GOP grain on abortion, for instance, in an internal poll of Iowa caucus-goers conducted for a rival presidential contender last summer. Respondents who identified themselves as “pro-choice” were three times more likely than “pro-life” voters to support Trump, according to a Republican strategist with knowledge of the survey.

One large dataset shows Trump excelling above all with voters who call themselves Republicans even though they aren’t officially registered as Republicans….

Trump also runs particularly well with people looking for a “strong leader.” While [Ted] Cruz dominated among Quinnipiac poll respondents in Iowa who wanted a candidate who “shares your values,” Trump got 40 percent of those looking for a strong leader. Fox News’ most recent Iowa poll showed Trump getting 39 percent of those voters, too….

Knowing who Trump’s supporters is interesting, but ultimately the question is, will they show up to vote for him in caucuses? There are signs that he may fall short of expectations, for a couple of reasons:

Trump’s most natural supporters are some of the people most disillusioned with politics….

Trump’s candidacy may have activated a group of them, but converting them into voters remains difficult.

…[[D]ata showing Trump at his strongest with registered voters who are not registered Republicans won’t be a barrier in every state primary, but it is a real obstacle nevertheless, starting in the first caucus state of Iowa. Only a small number of first-time participants usually join every four years, though Trump’s campaign is aiming to drive a generation of first-time caucus-goers and GOP primary voters into the process starting this February.

In a recent survey conducted for a different presidential campaign, Trump still ran ahead of Ted Cruz in Iowa — but only among voters who both could caucus in 2016 and have never actually shown up to one before….

Trump has been overcoming supposedly insurmountable obstacles since his presidential campaign began. But now that he has amassed these supporters, converting them from Trump fans into Trump voters may be the biggest one yet.

It's worth noting that Barack Obama’s 2008 Iowa caucus victory was propelled in part by a massive surge in first-time attendees, so it’s not out of the question that Trump could pull off a similar feat. But recent press coverage has tended to suggest his organization lags behind its rivals’, as a December New York Times article explained:

…[H]ere in the state with the first nominating contest … Mr. Trump has fallen behind in the nuts and bolts of organizing. A loss in Iowa for Mr. Trump, where he has devoted the most resources of his campaign, could imperil his leads in the next two nominating states, New Hampshire and South Carolina, where his get-out-the-vote organizations are even less robust.

A successful ground game is crucial in Iowa because of the state’s complicated method of caucus voting, but the Trump campaign has lagged in reaching some of its own benchmarks.

Mr. Trump’s Iowa director predicted that he would recruit a leader for each of the state’s 1,681 Republican precincts by Thanksgiving. Instead, the first major training session for precinct leaders, heavily promoted in emails and conference calls, drew only about 80 people to West Des Moines last weekend, with about 50 participating online.

But not everyone is convinced Trump’s apparent organizational weaknesses will cause him to significantly underperform. Craig Robinson, former political director of the Iowa Republican Party and now publisher of The Iowa Republican, suggested that both Huckabee and Santorum won in 2008 and 2012 despite having relatively meager organizations:

The big mistake [the Romney campaign] made was not really respecting [Mike] Huckabee. Instead of being worried about his broad appeal, they laughed and ridiculed his cobbled together campaign. It was a mess, and it was cobbled together. The Huckabee campaign consisted of just a few field staffers. Eric Woolson, his Iowa campaign manager, knew what he was doing, but was overwhelmed by the Huckabee surge. A candidate who was articulate, folksy, and incredibly likeable held it all together.

Four years later, [Rick] Santorum not only rebuilt a similar coalition of voters, but his campaign wasn’t going to win any awards for having the best staffers in Iowa or the being the best prepared. Frankly, Santorum’s team was probably a little better organized, but still people would scoff at the notion if you thought that he had assembled an all-star team.

There are a lot of similarities between politics and sports, but if we have learned anything about politics in Iowa it’s that the old sports adage that the best team always wins, doesn’t always apply. Mitt Romney ran the best caucus campaign in Iowa in 2008 and 2012, and all he has to show for it is two-second place finishes.

The experiences of Huckabee and Santorum suggest that it might not be a lack of organization that holds down Trump’s vote on caucus night, but a lack of numbers. If fewer first-time attendees than his campaign expects show up, that may be the factor that causes him to fall short.

Or he could surprise everyone by getting those first-timers to caucus for him – if nothing else, Trump has been the consistent surprise of the 2016 nomination process, and it would be hard to rule out yet another one.