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What kind of Trump voters can the opposition win? - 6/17/18
As the 2018 elections approach, a familiar question has resurfaced: should Democrats - or for that matter, the American left - even try to win over Trump voters? Naturally, answers to this question will tend to depend on our understanding of Trump voters and their motivations. If we suppose that some Trump voters are just contrarians, or fans of The Apprentice, for example, it is possible to imagine the left winning them over without compromising its principles. If on the other hand we decide that Trump voters mostly want capitalist ethnonationalism, it doesn't seem likely that the left can seriously pursue them without compromising its values.

Some recently released polling from The Democracy Fund Voter Study Group (DFVSG) sheds some light on this question. Based on a series of surveys conducted from 2011 through 2017, the DFSVG has identified "five unique clusters of Trump voters":
  • STAUNCH CONSERVATIVES are "steadfast fiscal conservatives, embrace moral traditionalism, and have a moderately nativist conception of American identity and approach to immigration."
  • FREE MARKETEERS are "small government fiscal conservatives, free traders, with moderate to liberal positions on immigration and race."
  • AMERICAN PRESERVATIONISTS are "economically progressive, believe the economic and political systems are rigged, have nativist immigration views, and a nativist and ethnocultural conception of American identity."
  • ANTI-ELITES is a group that "leans economically progressive, believes the economic and political systems are rigged, and takes relatively more moderate positions on immigration, race, and American identity than American Preservationists." And finally,
  • THE DISENGAGED "does not know much about politics, but what they do know is they feel detached from institutions and elites and are skeptical of immigration."
This schema, grounded in solid data, can lend some rigor to left discussions about Trump voters and can help us to avoid some of the common generalizations circulating about them in our discourse - both positive and negative. Consider, for example, the endless debates over whether Trump voters were motivated by some form of economic anxiety. Average out how all Trump voters feel about their income, and you get unremarkable ambivalence: 43.2% are satisfied and 40.1% are dissatisfied, leaving a near-margin-of-error gap of 3.1%. But look at the five voter clusters, and you see some remarkable variation:


The DFVSG's breakdown reveals that Disengaged Trump voters were dissatisfied with their income by a margin of 18.3%, while Free Marketers voiced a margin of 31.9% satisfaction - a gap of more than fifty percent. Average out Trump voters into a monolithic base with identical motivations and you miss all of this.

Once we make these basic distinctions, we can begin to consider what kinds of candidates appeal to what kinds of Trump voters. Consider, for example, what the DFVSG's polling shows us about Trump voter views towards Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders:


Generally, while Trump voters have unfavorable views of both politicians, they remain significantly more opposed to Clinton than Sanders. Treat Trump voters as a monolith, and you can pretend that this gap comes from sympathy Sanders has earned from racists, ethnonationalists, and even capitalists. When we divide them into clusters, however, it is clear that the exact opposite is true: Sanders earns most of his opposition from Stanch Conservatives, Free Marketeers, and American Preservationists, and polls best among Anti-Elites and The Disengaged. Among the latter two - who account for nearly a quarter of Trump's constituency - unfavorable views towards Sanders drop by more than fifty percent.

The upshot here is that Democrats, or leftists, can demonstrably peel off support from Trump voters - or at least, soften their opposition - without pandering to his reactionary base. This should not be a controversial analysis, even among centrists or elite pundits: it is, after all, precisely what Clinton proposed in her attempt to divide Trump voters into various baskets, including the infamous "basket of deplorables." There was also, of course, the basket Clinton hoped to win:
people who feel the government has let them down, the economy has let them down, nobody cares about them, nobody worries about what happens to their lives and their futures; and they're just desperate for change.
This strikes me as a decent demographic for Trump's opponents to target in 2018 - but if the DFVSG's polling is any indication, the way you do that is to run to Clinton's left.