Editor’s Note: This is the first part of a two-part series.
We have been hearing about Donald Trump’s “base” since he entered the GOP primaries in 2015. Both political commentators and the candidate himself have often talked about these core supporters, particularly as Trump succeeded as a candidate. Halfway through the GOP primaries, Trump famously announced: “I could stand in the middle of 5th Avenue and shoot someone and I wouldn’t lose voters.” He was emphasizing the loyalty of his supporters. Of course, he proceeded to capture the GOP nomination, and then almost 63 million people voted for him in November, giving him the Electoral College win that made him president.
Trump’s base fascinates me, because I am not sure whether they have clearly been identified, and I believe they are the key to understanding his success. Being a political junkie, I have read countless post-election articles and several books analyzing the outcome of the 2016 presidential race. But there is no clear understanding of exactly who is a part of the Trump base, or why they support him. Clearly, not everyone who voted for him is part of his base. Many (probably millions) held their nose to vote for him, but did so because they were vehemently anti-Hillary Clinton. Today, they are anything but pro-Trump.
Hillary addressed Trump’s core supporters in her post-election memoir, What Happened, but she only broadly describes them. She writes that 13.3 million people voted for Trump in the Republican primaries, adding it was safe to say these folks were “mostly hard-core supporters,” the supporters who would still be with him if he shot someone in the middle of 5th Avenue. Hillary notes, “Thirteen million is a lot of people to strongly support someone most Americans think is unqualified and unfit,” as the polls at the time indicated, but she explains these primary voters accounted for “less than half of all Republican primary voters and less than 10 percent of all general election voters.” (Nearly 139 million people voted in the 2016 presidential election. While this was a record number, it was only sixty percent of 232 million Americans eligible to vote, not to mention about 86 percent of the 160 million registered voters.) Hillary does not further examine Trump’s base. But following his GOP primary, Trump clearly picked up additional serious supporters, many if not most coming from the ranks of Senator Ted Cruz’s supporters.
Polling has offered varying and differing identifications of Trump’s base. As the Washington Post pointed out, in June of last year, myriad polls have suggested Trump’s core voters to be low-educated, white working-class men, but later polls proved this was not an accurate portrait of his base, which, in fact, had a higher-than-average incomes. Regardless of whom you include or exclude in Trump base—and I will return to that subject in Part 2 of this column—what has been most striking is that his base appears to be shrinking.
In August 2017, the Trump-supporting Washington Examiner announced: “Data show that Trump’s real base is 24 percent of the electorate.” Kristen Soltis Anderson, a professional Republican pollster, analyzed the then-released polls of the leading polling organizations (CNN, Politico, ABC News, Monmouth University, and Gallup), to explain Trump’s shrinking support, and observe that it was even lower than his approval/disapproval numbers. She concluded: “The data—on issues and on Trump himself—keep pointing back to ‘one-in-four’ as the true size of Trump’s base. It is around one in four who like the tweeting, like the insults, the things other people say are mean or unproductive behavior.” Ms. Anderson concluded from these number last August that the GOP was in serious trouble. Since then, however, Trump’s support has further deteriorated.
A year after Trump’s win, and eleven months into his presidency, long-time pollster Bill Schneider reported on the November 2017 NBC News-Wall Street Journal poll, which had Trump’s job approval rating down to 38 percent, with 81 percent of Republicans still standing by their president. Schneiderman explained the glue binding Trump to his core supporters was their shared sense of defiance. But the approval number was again misleading. I did the kind of second pass that Kristen Anderson had done in August, and Trump no longer had even 24 percent on key issues from his base. And his numbers have continued to trend down, as CNN reported in December 2017. Trump’s support is shrinking across the board, with all identifiable groups. While 24 percent may be as about low as Trump can go, and where his base will support him forever, it should be remembered that Richard Nixon resigned when his approval rating fell to 24 percent, because he did not believe a president could govern with so little approval. (Pew Research Center has collected Nixon’s falling numbers in a summary report.)
While I will never be known as a Nixon fan, I must say that he did understand the American presidency. Trump does not, and he will never resign. Nor does his base want him to ever resign, which brings me back to his supporters. There has been serious speculation that Trump’s base is composed of idiots. But the deeper one dives into examining these people the more incorrect it is to dismiss them with pejorative conjecture. Trump is going to be actively campaigning for Republicans in 2018 because he hopes to protect GOP control of Congress and has already announced he is running for reelection in 2020, so he needs to help the party survive the disaster he has given them. For those who shudder at the prospect of Trump having a second term, or Republicans maintaining control of both Houses of Congress, there is a key. It is better understanding Trump’s base. So, with this preface, I will proceed to explain these people in my next column.