Why They Really Support Trump: The View From The Campaign Trail

Last Saturday I attended a Trump rally in Windham, New Hampshire – a relatively affluent town (median income was $127,868 in 2014) of just under of 15,000 people located in the southern portion of the Granite State.  Regular readers will know that I’ve attended several Trump rallies, but this was the first one since I was at Trump’s coronation in Cleveland, and I was eager to see whether he was attracting new supporters and, if so, what they saw in him. I’ve learned through experience that the reasons Trump supporters give for backing him often bear scant resemblance to what the twits on my twitterfeed tell me is really motivating Trump voters.  The experience provided a fascinating window into the minds of Trump supporters.

New Hampshire is considered to be a battleground state, with the latest Huffpost polling aggregator giving Clinton almost a 5% lead.

pollster-2016-new-hampshire-president-trump-vs-clinton-1

 

Drew Linzer’s poll tracker, which uses a slightly different algorithm, gives Clinton a 7% lead in New Hampshire.

 

Because Trump had been in the region at two local private fundraisers earlier in the day (one on the Cape, and the second on Nantucket), it made sense for him to make a campaign stop in New Hampshire. But his choice to hold the rally in a high school gym did not work out well.  When we arrived, tickets in hand, about 40 minutes before the scheduled 8 p.m. start, we saw cars lined up on the entrance road for a couple of miles, and scores of people appeared to be walking away from the high school.  It turned out the fire marshals had already closed the doors to the packed gymnasium, citing local fire codes.  That worked out well for me, as it gave me the opportunity to talk in depth with dozens of Trump supporters who remained outside the rally, hoping for a glimpse of Trump. (Note the child with the oversized Make America Great Again red cap!)

(As it turned out, about halfway through Trump’s speech, people began trickling outside, complaining about the stifling heat inside the gymnasium.  “You’re lucky you’re out here,” one person muttered to me as he stumbled outside, bathed in sweat.  Scott Brown, who introduced Trump, was one who left early as seen in this blurry picture:)

I consciously sought to talk with about an even mix of men and women (there were not a lot of racial or ethnic minorities in the crowd that I could see).  I have found that if I make it clear that I am a political scientist doing research (I show them my business card), and not a member of the media, people at these rallies are only too glad to talk to me, and in great depth.  I began by asking them if they were supporting Trump, and if so, why.   From there I probed more deeply, asking about the previous candidates they may have supported, what they thought of Trump’s stances on issues and his qualifications for office, and how strongly they were committed to voting for him.  As much as possible, however, I let them take charge of the conversation.  My goal was to elicit a more thorough understanding of what they thought of Trump than one can get through the more fixed interview protocol used in surveys.

It quickly became clear that two themes dominated the thinking of Trump supporters.  The first, expressed – unprompted by me – by every person I talked to, was economic anxiety.  Interestingly, that anxiety was not directed so much at their own situation but toward that of their children, or others close to them.

One women, in her forties, got emotional as she told me her daughter and son-in-law were about to have twins.  “They work so very hard,” she said, “and yet they aren’t getting ahead.”  A second woman, who appeared to be in her early thirties, and who is a nurse, said students graduating from nursing school today are starting at salaries $10 lower than what she earned starting out a decade earlier.  “That’s not enough to pay off their loans,” she observed.  She said she had been an Obama supporter, in part because she backed Obamacare, but she now thought the health care law was a disaster for both providers and consumers.   A third woman told me she was a first-generation immigrant who was attracted to Trump because she believed in capitalism.  “I’ve lived under socialism,” she told me.  “I want capitalism.”  Like many of the people I talked to, she liked Trump because of his business background, and his lack of political experience, both of which she saw as virtues.

When I pushed these people to explain how they thought Trump could speed up the slow economic growth they associated with the Obama presidency, the common response was some variation of, “I don’t know, but we have to try something new.”  Others responded by noting that “it can’t get any worse” under a Trump presidency. One man, who appeared in his mid-forties, recounted a conversation he had with business associates on this topic: “They told me that if it requires blowing up the existing system to get meaningful change, it has to be done.”  Here is where I saw how Trump’s lack of political finesse worked in his favor among these voters – something that’s hard to see based on the more critical coverage he gets on cable news and social media.

I asked several people what they thought of Trump’s often inflammatory comments. One woman acknowledged that she sometimes wished he would “tone it down a little.” (She also pointed to several of the items being hawked outside the event, including the ubiquitous “Hillary Sucks – But Monica Sucks Better” t-shirt, as offensive.) But most of those I talked to saw Trump’s blunt talk as a virtue.  “Sometimes you have to say these things” to make changes, one man told me.  A second man, who appeared to be in his 70’s, asked me, “Have you ever worked in New York?”  When I replied no, he said, “Well, that’s how you talk when you do business in New York. There are a lot of bad people there, and that’s how you get things done with them.”

I pressed several respondents on whether they thought there were racial undertones to Trump’s statements on immigration, and whether they thought other (not them!) Trump supporters might be partially animated by racist beliefs.  Not one person agreed with the notion, although one person acknowledged “I can’t speak for what motivates all of his supporters.”  One individual, a Republican Party official who was at the rally registering voters, told me, “Here in New Hampshire, voters tend to associate Trump’s comments on building a wall and immigration with the opiate crisis, which has hit people hard here. They think doing anything to secure the borders is going to help.”

The second theme that emerged, again unprompted by me, was a deep antipathy toward Hillary Clinton. One man, in his early 40’s, told me he wasn’t voting for Trump as much as he was against Clinton. Almost to a person those I talked to expressed a fundamental belief that she could not be trusted.  At one point in our conversation, the woman whose daughter is having twins lowered her voice to tell me, “I’m a Roman Catholic and a good Christian, but I just have to say this: that woman [Hillary Clinton] is evil.” When I pressed several of them to compare her knowledge on issues like foreign policy to Trump’s, they pushed back against the idea that she was somehow more qualified than him.  One man visibly recoiled when I suggested she might be, on paper, better prepared to serve as commander-in-chief.  “You can’t believe a word she says!” he replied incredulously.  As I’ve noted in previous posts,  despite fact-checking statistics that seem to show Clinton’s statements are more often factually correct than are Trump’s, there is a deep and abiding perception among a good portion of the population that Clinton is simply not trustworthy.  Some of that mistrust, according to those at the NH Trump rally, goes back to events occurring under Bill’s watch.  People I talked to often referenced the two of them together.

Many of the people I interviewed did not start out as Trump supporters.  Several were originally Kasich or Rubio backers, but most said they were now supporting Trump. One Kasich supporter who was now voting for Trump said he couldn’t bring himself to vote for Clinton. One woman, who appeared in her early 20’s, said she had read Trump’s book The Art of the Deal when she was a teenager, and it had inspired her to go into real estate.  “I’ve always admired him,” she acknowledged.

I interviewed only one person, a young woman who appeared to be in her twenties, who said she was not voting for Trump. “I was just curious to see a Trump rally,” she told me.  When pressed, she told me she was voting for Clinton, but not because she supported her, but because “she is a Democrat. I’m voting for the Party.”  As I noted above, at about the mid-point of Trump’s speech, spectators began trickling out complaining about the oppressive heat inside the building.  Unfortunately for some of them, the Trump supporters outside the building thought they were protestors getting tossed from the premises, and their appearance sometimes incited boos and heckling from the crowd.  Throughout Trump’s speech, those outside periodically erupted into chants of “Trump, Trump, Trump!”, “Build that Wall!” and “Lock her up!”  One of the more imaginative chants was started by a Trump supporter who said, “Everyone talks about Trump and 1984” – apparently referencing Orwell’s classic book about authoritarian rule.  “Well, I have a better date:  1789!”  Whereupon people began chanting, “1789! 1789!” As one who teaches the intro course on American politics, I felt a certain pride in this particular chant.

Because we wanted to beat the traffic, we left the rally before Trump concluded his speech.  You can watch the full version here.  As always, I was struck by the contrast between what Trump supporters told me regarding why they support his candidacy, and what I hear on cable news and read on social media. (I’m not sure how this event was covered, but it had a heavy local media presence.)

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Granted, this was a rally in New Hampshire, and it may not be representative of what Trump supporters elsewhere believe.  But the deep concern about the economic future of the country is something I’ve heard from Trump supporters at other rallies I’ve attended as well.  As one Trump supporter in New Hampshire explained to me, “These people still believe in the American Dream about getting ahead, but they they think it is slipping away from us.”  The other aspect of the interviews that stuck with me is how thoughtful those I talked with were when giving their responses.  It was clear they were knowledgeable about the candidates and the issues, and that their support was based on a careful consideration of both. Of course, I don’t doubt that there were the occasional conspiracy theorists sprinkled in Trump’s crowd as well.  But on the whole this clearly wasn’t a rally of the brown-shirted thugs that social media often makes Trump’s supporters out to be.  Trump has clearly tapped into a genuine feeling of economic anxiety among a significant number of voters.  Whether that will be enough to propel him to the presidency remains to be seen.  But it is a feeling that Clinton and her supporters would do well to take seriously.

Addendum 4:19 8/11/16:  This Wall St. Journal article on the impact of Chinese imports on New Hampshire towns and communities in other states dovetails exactly with what Trump supporters were telling me at his rally on Saturday.

23 comments

  1. I don’t doubt these citizens’ economic anxiety and anti-Hillary feelings are real. And I don’t doubt they offered thoughtful accounts to express those feelings. But I do think we should take such self-reports with a grain of salt. Most people don’t like to admit they are motivated by racial resentment, and many may not even be aware that they are.

    This is our comparative advantage as social scientists. We get to execute systematic research designs that help adjudicate among plausible alternatives. To that end, I think that my colleague, Michael Tesler, has been singularly insightful. Time and again he has shown that racial resentment is animating support for Trump in ways that have not been true of previous Republican nominees.

    https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/monkey-cage/wp/2016/08/01/trump-is-the-first-republican-in-modern-times-to-win-the-partys-nomination-on-anti-minority-sentiments/

    So what you hear at the rallies may differ from what “the twits on my twitterfeed tell me is really motivating Trump voters,” but that doesn’t mean the voters are right. So as much as I agree Clinton (and everyone else) should take their opinions seriously, I do not think she (or we) should do so without also recognizing that racial resentment really is motivating Trump voters.

  2. Matthew – Thanks for the very useful comments. Your warning against inferring attitudes toward race based on self-reports reminds me of a question I typically ask my audiences when they ask me how much race influences voters’ attitudes toward Obama, or Trump, or some other political topic. I always respond first with this: “Raise your hand if you are a racist.” I’ve been asking that question during my public talks for more than a decade, and only once did a hand ever go up! So you are right to caution about taking self-reports about attitudes toward Trump with a healthy dose of salt. But in my view that does not mean we should dismiss them as complete fabrication either. Another one of our comparative advantages as social scientists, as you well know, is the ability to use different methods to solve puzzles, and there is a long history dating back to Robert Lane (and before!) of using relatively unstructured interviewing to get at the underlying beliefs of “the common man” (to use Lane’s term.)

    I’m also familiar with Michael Tesler’s excellent work, and similar studies, although not nearly as well versed in it, or the literature on racial resentment, as I’d like. One concern I have, however, is that it is not clear to me, or to some of my colleagues, what the racial resentment questions are really measuring – it is a new form of symbolic racism, or is it tapping into opposition to race-based policies? See, for example, research by Carmines, Sniderman and Easter http://bit.ly/2b1f9xl or Feldman and Huddy http://bit.ly/2bjpvfd suggesting a more complex understanding of the racial resentment index – one that is not inconsistent with what I’m hearing from some Trump supporters. This is not my bailiwick (I have trouble enough keeping up with the presidency literature!) so I am open to new (or old!) evidence on the topic. At this point, however, I’m not nearly as confident as I suspect you are that I understand what the racial resentment index is measuring, but I’m certainly open to further discussion on the issue. If pressed -and I’m still working through the issue based in part on survey research and also on what I have seen at multiple Trump rallies – I don’t think all of Trump’s 13 million votes are driven primarily by racial resentment – indeed, I don’t think a monocausal explanation is going to explain his support in general. I think economic anxiety plays a significant role, but race – in all its permutations,from outright bigotry to opposition to race-based policies – does as well and I don’t dismiss the possibility that race and economic anxiety are closely intertwined for some Trump supporters. As for the “twits” comments – to be clear, I’m not referring to our colleagues here, but to the armchair pundits who tell me, based on their own presumptions, what Trump supporters are really thinking without looking at any evidence at all.

    Again, I appreciate the comments, and encourage more pushback – it reminds my students that social science is a collaborative and cumulative process, and that we sometimes disagree on what the evidence is telling us.

  3. I get the impression that a substantial number of Trump supporters base their opinion (or at least justify it) on the basis of “what he really thinks” as opposed to “what he says” whereby they insert their own preferences for what he really thinks. If that’s the case, does it indicate that the support preceded the reasoning?

  4. Scott – Good question. In trying to answer this, it gets complicated, because at his rallies Trump will frequently revisit a controversial statement he made, and tell his audience a somewhat tamer version of it, as in, “This is what I really said, despite what the dishonest media will have you believe I said.” And when you hear the tamer explanation, it doesn’t sound so outrageous or controversial. The other point I would make is that when I push Trump supporters on this point, asking them if they were bothered by Trump’s outlandish statements, they often shrugged and said that was Trump trying to get media coverage. The other response I get is that Trump has to use this language in order to get heard – otherwise nothing will change. But yes, I think many Trump supporters are predisposed to support Trump, and that they subsequently develop a rationale for doing so.

  5. The scholarly debate about what the “racial resentment” battery measures extends for decades and includes lots of insightful studies. I always thought it was primarily picking up race-based opinions rather than ideological preferences, but I also acknowledged reasonable people could disagree.

    In my view, however, the last 8 years with President Obama have been revealing – strong evidence that racial resentment measures in today’s polls mostly tap racial rather than ideological moorings. After all, why else would racial resentment predict opposition to Barack Obama’s healthcare plan but not Bill Clinton’s? Why else would racial resentment predict negative opinions about Barack Obama’s dog but not Ted Kennedy’s?

    Trump’s candidacy has further cemented this take. For Trump has not run as an ideological conservative in any meaningful sense other than extreme tax cuts. He does not rail against spending on entitlements; his critiques of the federal government tend to be focused on “dumb” leaders, not liberal policies per se. There is a reason National Review and the Weekly Standard and other conservative columnists have actively opposed Trump.

    So as much as I agree that monocausal explanations are always suspect, I also believe that in the rundown of factors, racial animus (however measured) is central to what Trump is selling, and it also central to those who are buying. As political scientists looking to understand what REALLY drives Trump’s support, it is important to state clearly what matters most is not ideological principles so much as it is racial antipathy – despite supporters’ claims to the contrary.

  6. Thanks Matt. I think a lot of people will agree with you. As you note, however, reasonable people can, and will, disagree. I don’t feel nearly as confident as you in placing the emphasis on racial as opposed to economic anxiety, nor am I as confident that they are separable. In any case, to be continued….Students – here’s some additional links if you want to begin delving a bit more deeply into the topic: https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/wonk/wp/2016/03/22/economic-anxiety-and-racial-anxiety-two-separate-forces-driving-support-for-donald-trump/#comments and https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/wonk/wp/2016/06/06/racial-anxiety-is-a-huge-driver-of-support-for-donald-trump-two-new-studies-find/ and https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/monkey-cage/wp/2016/03/04/how-political-science-helps-explain-the-rise-of-trump-part-3-its-the-economy-stupid/

  7. In considering the race vs. economic anxiety debate about Trump supporters, I tend to start with a remark by Angus Deaton about the rise in self-inflicted mortality among middle-aged whites in the US, contrary to what gets seen in other populations both here and in other developed countries: “They’ve lost the narrative of their lives.” I’m someone who studies the history of the industrial South, and have more latterly been concerned with deindustrialization, which has devastated a lot of rural and small-town communities. And to me the “narrative” of those lives mixes race and economics in some pretty intricate ways.

    When “footloose industries” flooded into the rural and small-town South in the post-World War II years, they were the salvation of many a community suffering from steep declines in agricultural employment owing to mechanization, crop-mix changes, and the like. Whites who might otherwise have had to leave home for work were able to maintain their traditional family and community life, underwritten by steady factory work. They were told by their employers and by state and local industrial promoters that their jobs reflected their virtue–that those jobs were theirs because of their “work ethic.” What they usually meant by that, of course, was hardly what Max Weber meant; it was just a cosmetic version of the old “cheap and docile” come-on of industrial recruiters. But to those people, it validated their superiority to the people who they replaced in the North, and those people in the South–especially blacks–who didn’t get those jobs, in large part because the new plants carefully avoided heavily black areas. In other words, their employment validated their whiteness.

    But over the last twenty years or so, those jobs have vanished, often suddenly and catastrophically; in the end, employers weren’t rewarding them for their virtue, but were using and then discarding them. This situation is made to order for cognitive dissonance. Are they going to blame themselves? Are they going to blame an economic system that chewed them up and spat them out? Or are they going to do what white working-class southerners have done from time immemorial–view the problem through a racial filter? The raw materials are there: mysterious, shifty nonwhite foreigners “stealing” our jobs, other nonwhite foreigners taking jobs here, a black President from a party that’s generally seen as privileging blacks over whites. Republicans in the South have exploited this for years; it’s only a baby step to Trump.

    So this is how I read it–based not only on my reading of history, but my own experiences hanging out with rural southern whites. What do you think?

  8. I have the same economic anxieties for my 30 year old kids. I also would regret any extension of a Clinton (or Bush) dynasty which seems to have defined most of my political adulthood. At the end of all this Trump simply does not seem to have genuine empathy for the situation my kids are in. I suspect few weathly corporate souls would. I’ll be voting for (again) for a Clinton.

  9. David,

    Thanks for the thoughtful response. I suspect – I know! – I don’t know nearly as much as do you regarding southern white attitudes and how they have been affected by the impact of deindustrialization. However, I agree with your more general point that economic anxiety can affect racial attitudes. I would add that my sense is that attitudes toward Trump among NH supporters may reflect a different mix of concerns than attitudes among voters elsewhere. (In this vein, I regret not doing more extensive open-ended interviewing during Trump’s South Carolina rally.) In NH, for example, the impact of the opiate crisis on attitudes toward immigration among some Trump supporters was quite pronounced – I’m not sure if that shows up in other areas to the same degree.

  10. To be clear, I’m not predicting a Trump victory! I’m only posting on what Trump supporters tell me is the reason they are voting for him! Right now the polls indicate he’s going to lose, although some of the forecast models are predicting a closer race than what the polls are showing right now. We’ll see how that plays out….

  11. Excellent insights and effort! Listening to the comments of those you interviewed, I can’t help but feel that they are placing blame at the feet solely of Barack Obama and (by extension) Bill Clinton and other Democrats for all of their woes, when in fact Republicans have had their hand in most of the current set of policies we are faced with today (Obamacare being a big exception, despite it being based on a Republican idea). I suppose “The Wall” can be considered a straight-up counter to the Dem plan to provide a path to citizenship to current undocumented immigrants, but I’ve heard less of Trump’s plan to deport those already here. Free Trade is not a Dem idea, however. Health care was a mess long before Obamacare. Tax cuts have favored the rich not because of Dems but because of Republicans.

    To the woman who hates seeing her kids work just as hard for half the money: how do you think we got here? Because of immigration? Because of Obamacare? Because of free trade? Because of the welfare state? Because of over-regulation? Other than Trump saying he’d do away with these things, I’ve heard little of specific plans of his explaining how he’d ‘fix’ these things, though I have heard many experts opine how deporting millions would drive up prices, how enacting trade barriers would cost US exporting jobs and raise prices, how eliminating Obamacare would bring back inequities in the system, etc.

    Just seems like they see in Trump a big middle-finger response to their litany of complaints, without consideration of the consequences of their reaction.

  12. Thomas,

    As I noted in the post, when I pushed them a bit to explain how they expected Trump to address their economic anxiety, most respondents weren’t very forthcoming. Instead, most expressed a general dissatisfaction with the political establishment’s ability to do anything to address their economic concerns. Hence Trump’s lack of political experience is seen as a virtue – not a handicap, whereas Clinton’s political experience doesn’t necessarily work in her favor. At least that’s my sense based on what they are saying – which I suppose is not incompatible with your “middle finger” thesis except I’m not sure it’s directed solely at Democrats.

  13. Dear Prof Dickinson,
    If i understand correctly, you are saying that Trump rally goers are 1) experiencing economic anxiety a) more for their offspring than for themselves 2) don’t trust Hilary Clinton and 3) are choosing Trump for some unknown reason.

    From these inferences I don’t see the conclusion that these folks are not exhibiting any racial bias or gender bias. I wonder what data that you gathered helps you form the conclusion that the racial and/or gender bias is not a primary force here.

    Are you saying that your data is not inconsistent with a racist/genderist (is this a word?) basis for those supporting trump.

    I am using racist/genderist to mean a situation where the power dominant race/gender is motivated by maintaining the current power structure. I wonder what social science experiment can try and test the basis for support in a more direct way.

  14. Paras,

    Actually, I think you have the first two points correct, but I don’t fully agree with your point three. I think, based in part on conversations with Trump supporters, that the reasons why they say they will vote for him are pretty clear: they think the American Dream, in which their children will do better than they did, is slipping away. A major part of that concern is based on economic anxiety, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t have a racial component. To the degree that stagnant wages and slower economic growth disproportionately affects lower- and middle-income white males – or that they perceive that to be the case – I think you are going to see race and gender affecting the vote. That’s why I think it is so hard to separate out the influences driving Trump’s support, and why I disagree with my colleagues who believe Trump’s supporters are all closet racists and that the economy doesn’t matter. In fact, I think the two factors are closely intertwined.

  15. Prof Dickinson,

    If i understand you correctly you are saying that Trump Voters believe that Trump will make the situation better. From your comments its not clear to me if you have a thesis about why these supporters believe that Trump can make things better.

  16. Paras,

    As I noted in my post, I did press them regarding how they thought Trump would bring about the changes he has promised. Their general response was that they didn’t know, but that something had to be done to change the direction of the country, and they had little faith that the political establishment was capable of making those changes. Hence Trump’s appeal as a nontraditional candidate.

  17. I did note your comment in the post. From your post, my inference is that they really don’t know or don’t want to say why they are supporting trump.

    One could easily put together a narrative that there are racist motivations here. I think that would be sloppy.

    I wonder if there are other indirect methods of guaging this. A few people are using google correlate and google trends to make inferences. I wonder if you have looked at some of these.

  18. Oh, they are quite clear and very open about telling me why they are voting for Trump. There’s no debate there. Read my post again. The question is whether you believe them – or whether they even understand their own motives. I’m only reporting what they say – and what they say about the role of economic anxiety and the need for change as the reason they support Trump couldn’t be stated any more forcefully. But there are lots of ways political scientists have sought to go beyond what voters say to uncover what they truly believe. For example, that’s what the questions tapping into “racial resentment” are designed to do. The issue is whether you believe those questions are really uncovering what they purport to uncover. The research is mixed on this – I’ll leave it to you to come to your own conclusions. But to be clear – in my post I’m not doing anything more than listening to what Trump supporters tell me, and reporting it.

  19. Prof Dickinson,

    I read the following passage from your notes.

    Is this a good reflection of why Trump supporters are supporting him?

    I interpret this as saying that they are really not sure how Trump will help. For me this is a classic emotional (vs. rational) response of those who feel disenfranchised by a system. I completed my grad work 25 years ago so its a little rusty, but i recall reading that those who do not feel that they are part of the system (often those in the bottom in a power sense), react emotionally often trying to break the system. I remember taking part in a three day inter group exercise where the bottom third, who had very little allocated to them, reacted in the way trump supporters seem to be reacting today.

  20. Thank you for the reference.

    I wonder if your conversations (in your opinion of course) are also consistent with this paper.

    really appreciate the care with which you are conducting this work.

  21. I think the finding reported in the paper that Trump supporters are much less concerned with their own financial standing, and much more concerned with that of their children or next generation, is entirely consistent with what those supporters tell me at the rallies. They really seem to feel the American Dream of getting ahead is slipping away from the next generation

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