There are two theories about the source of Donald Trump’s support. The first is the most common and states that his support is coming from the annoyed, anti-establishment GOP base. The other theory, more recent in its origin, has resulted from analysis of recent swing state polls that find Trump’s support is coming from moderate and liberal Republicans nationwide and in Iowa and New Hampshire.
So which is true? They both certainly have merit. Trump’s rhetoric fits the stereotype people have of the angry, non-college-educated GOP base. These voters are less accepting of immigration, gay marriage, and a changing America. Trump is certainly channeling some of these views, but only on the surface. Trump is struggling with the elements of the GOP classified as the party’s base.
Consider a recent ABC/WashPost survey in which Trump has jumped to the top of the pack. In the poll Trump finds his strongest support among voters over 50 with no college degrees. However, among very conservative voters he loses by eight percent in a crowded field and garners a weak plurality of the actual GOP vote (he wins GOP-leaning Independents).
Where Trump’s support comes from is moderate and liberal Republicans. That’s not exactly the heart of the GOP, and it is debatable whether they consistently vote Republican.
There are also questions about whether the polls are even giving us a decent sample set to draw conclusions from. The NBC/Marist Iowa survey digitally dialed 919 registered voters, but only 37 percent (or 342) of those voters were Republicans or Republican-leaning Independents. That is an incredibly small sample out of a state with over two million registered voters.
The question of accurate representation goes even deeper than that. In the 2012 election, 121,501 people showed up to vote in Iowa’s GOP presidential caucus. That’s a mere 5.75 percent of all voters and not even close to 37 percent. How many of these voters were conservative to liberal to moderate is hard to state, but anecdotal evidence suggests it’s not the moderates and liberals from which Trump is drawing support.
New Hampshire is a little different, and if Trump can win moderates and liberals he might be able to win the state with a plurality. Unlike Iowa, moderate and liberal Republicans have more sway in the New Hampshire primary.
There is another factor to consider, as it relates to the polling of the race, and that is the candidates themselves. Of all the GOP candidates in the race, only two start out with near universal name recognition–Jeb Bush and the Donald.
Bush, rightly or wrongly, is recognized due to his dad and brother, while Trump is known for his business dealings and celebrity appearances. Trump’s appeal is that he might be able to get low-information, occasional voters who are dissatisfied with the system to answer a poll and state their support for him.
Whether these voters will come out and vote is another story. Most, if not all, polls are not checking how likely these voters are to actually participate in the process, let alone confirm they are actually firm Republicans.
Virtually every other Republican in the race is not as well-known as Trump but has higher favorable ratings among the party. According to the ABC/WashPost survey, 57 percent of GOP voters had a favorable view of Trump to 40 percent who did not. A month ago those numbers were flip-flopped, but not even that improvement can hide the fact that Rubio, Walker, and Cruz all have more room to grow and have just as high or higher favorable ratings among Republicans.
These findings do not lend themselves to the idea that Trump is drawing his support from the GOP base. Rather, they show Trump is drawing support from disaffected individuals. It’s not a great way to guarantee electoral success.
It also explains why Trump is surging after his feud with McCain. The quarrel guarantees media coverage and keeps voters aware that he is in the race, as does his recent trip to the southern border. However, even such high-profile moves, likely to appeal to the party base, have not endeared him to the likely primary and caucus voter.
One can use the ABC/WashPost survey’s question on the general election and Trump as a proxy for just how much appeal Trump has to expanding his support. Voters are asked whether they would “definitely” vote, “likely” vote, or “definitely not” vote for Trump if he is the GOP nominee. A solid 20 percent said they would back Trump but a massive 62 percent said they would not vote.
If we assume the sample is 50/50 in terms of a Republican-Democratic split with Independent leaners included, that means only 40 percent of GOP voters would back Trump even in a general election. That means his ceiling is 40 percent in the GOP primary process. Not exactly the support that winning campaigns are built upon.
For Trump the greatest risk may be finding support among non-college-educated voters. He gets 32 percent of their vote but only eight percent of the college-educated vote. In the 2012 caucuses 52 percent of voters had a college education to 48 percent who did not. If Trump cannot make inroads with college-educated voters and the GOP base in crucial swing states, his ceiling lowers and his floor continues to deepen.
This is not to say that Trump is getting support only from the apathetic. He does touch a cord with some GOP voters. However, the reliability of these GOP voters is another question. Will they participate? Are they only drawn to Trump due to his name identification?
Furthermore, Trump’s struggles with the new face of the GOP–college-educated whites–suggests he cannot continue to climb much higher, even in a split GOP field.
Lastly, the accuracy or recent polls are questionable at best. If they cannot verify whether a participant is a reliable GOP voter, or are not even trying, are they even accurate? Probably not. So assumptions that Trump’s support is coming from the GOP base are dubious at best.
It is a dirty secret of the nomination process that polls can change quickly, as can momentum. What we are seeing with Trump could go away in a week or a day. So while the Walkers, Bushes, and Rubios of the world map out a long-term campaign strategy, including debate prep and meeting voters in the early states, the Trump camp is going for sensationalism and building a brand tailored to appeal to low-info voters. At this rate, even if the polls are accurate, Trump would have to spend millions and millions to make up for likely losses in the early voting states. Big losses.