[Overview] Trump Voters VI – Conservatism and Policy

[Part I; Part II; Part III; Part IV; Part V; Part VI; Part VII; Part VIII; Single page]

by David Severa


Well before Trump, and well before Obama, Republicans had been getting more conservative – certainly rhetorically. “[S]elf-described conservatives [made] up a greater share of Republicans in 2012 (68%) than they did in 2000 (59%)”. Until roughly yesterday Tea Party intransigence was the order of the day, including a two-week shut down of the federal government. So why has Trump, who 45% of Republicans consider a moderate rather than a conservative, won?

At least in part, it’s because there exists a large bloc of “conservative” voters who aren’t in practice that conservative:

[A]fter analyzing survey data from the 1950s, Converse found that the public was largely “innocent of ideology.” When asked their likes and dislikes about the political parties and presidential candidates, relatively few used ideological concepts or terminology. The majority could not define terms like “liberal” and “conservative” or could define them in only in vague terms.

Moreover, people’s views on various political issues didn’t “go together” the way that liberalism or conservatism would predict. Knowing people’s view on one issue didn’t really help predict their view on another issue. This was particularly true among voters with less formal education — exactly the group that has been most attracted to Trump….

Similarly, recent work by James Stimson and Christopher Ellis (discussed here) as well as Sunshine Hillygus and Todd Shields has found that it is common for voters to have political views out of step with the mainstream of their party.

In particular, Ellis and Stimson show that it is self-identified conservatives who are particularly prone to this because so many of them take liberal positions on key questions like the size of government. They find that this group — “symbolically conservative” but “operationally” liberal — actually comprises a larger share of the electorate (nearly 25 percent) as of 2008 than it did in 1974.

In fact, when it comes to “whether the government should do more, less, or the same in lots of different policy areas”:

[A]lmost 30 percent of Americans are “consistent liberals” — people who call themselves liberals and have liberal politics.  Only 15 percent are “consistent conservatives” — people who call themselves conservative and have conservative politics.  Nearly 30 percent are people who identify as conservative but actually express liberal views.  The United States appears to be a center-right nation in name only.

These “conflicted conservatives” are of course conservative for other reasons, whether social conservatism or cultural affiliation with the right. But, given that the Republican party has been led by its business and libertarian wings toward a more economically conservative policy than its base would naturally support, there was an opening for someone who could operate outside the normal party apparatus (and thus avoid the need to prove ideological loyalty) to exploit.

There’s evidence for this. Plenty of polls found that Trump did well among moderates and exit polling bore that out. What’s striking is that he often did as well or better among self-described “somewhat conservative” voters. It was only with very conservative voters that he lagged, though not always by much:


(Data from here; graph created by me; not all states exit polled)

In most elections somewhat conservatives were the largest bloc (40+% of voters), and outside of the Northeast moderates were always the smallest bloc, so a large plurality of Trump supporters were somewhat conservative:


(Data from here; graph created by me; not all states exit polled)

Economic conservatism

So if neither Trump nor his supporters are consistently conservative, what policies do they support? Given that Trump has switched his positions on a whole bunch of issues, I’m not sure that polling is a very good guide to what policies he will actually pursue. Nevertheless, polling may tell us something more about what animates his base. Let’s look at polling from the 2012 election to start. “Majorities of GOP primary voters were willing to cut only four things: unemployment benefits, spending on housing, spending on the environment, and foreign aid.” And other than for foreign aid those majorities were hardly overwhelming:


Clearly even before Trump there was a large Republican constituency to preserve government programs. And according to the Washington Post, he has disproportionate appeal to those who want to increase federal spending (on a number of specific programs rather than in general):


The authors say:

There are two important takeaways. First, Trump does significantly better (15 points) among those who want spending increased rather than decreased.  Second, the numbers at the bottom show there are far more Republicans who want spending increased on these issues than decreased.

RAND’s long-term survey of select voters also found that voters who favored raising taxes on high incomes were far more supportive of Trump. He is tapping into a large group. “51 percent of Republican primary voters strongly or somewhat favor increasing taxes on individuals who make more than $200,000 a year”.


Although Trump has called Obamacare a disaster, he’s (vaguely) signaled support for some sort of universal coverage even last year. His supporters haven’t followed his lead, though. 84% don’t believe that the federal government has the responsibility to make sure everyone has health care, very similar to other Republicans. (The numbers for Democrats are almost exactly reversed.) On the other hand, 73% of Trump supporters don’t want Social Security benefits reduced, not too different from any other group of voters. So there’s no real divide between Trump voters and Republicans, just between Republicans and Democrats.

This broad support of current government programs and government spending needs to be reconciled with the fact that a mere 1% of Trump voters said they were “basically content” with the federal government. Let’s bring back this chart:

Section1_13png (Source)

The chart is for all voters, not just Trump supporters, but it makes sense that Trump supporters would be angry at politics and politicians, rather than government per se. Trump voters may not be angry about what government does (at least spending-wise) so much as angry at how it does it.

There is another possible reason for the disconnect between anger at “government” and support of government I’d like to propose: people have hugely distorted views of federal spending, so they might have favorable attitudes towards the programs that actually make up most of the government, but unfavorable attitudes towards a small number of programs that they think are eating up a huge amount of money, like foreign aid and welfare. Some amount of voters’ anger may simply be due to bad information. A 2011 CNN poll (in line with many other such surveys), found a great deal of ignorance as to how the government spends tax dollars:

According to the poll, on average, Americans estimate that foreign aid takes up 10 percent of the federal budget, and one in five think it represents about 30 percent of the money the government spends. But the actual figure is closer to one percent…. According to our poll the public estimates that the government spent five percent of its budget last year on public television and radio…. On average, Americans think the federal government spent 10 percent of its 2010 budget on pensions and retiree benefits; the OMB figures indicate the real number is about 3.5 percent.

A sizeable minority would like to see food and housing assistance for the poor on the chopping block, but Americans’ estimates of how much the government spends on those programs are three to four times higher than the actual price tag….

But the public, once again, overestimates the amount of military spending. They told us 30 percent in our poll. In reality only 19 percent of the 2010 budget went towards military spending, according to 2010 OMB figures.

(When people are told how much is actually spent on foreign aid, support for cuts drops by half.)

If voters understood government better, perhaps they would be less angered by it, though complaints about process and politicking would remain.

Notably, Trump voters are also more likely to feel positively about unions:


This fits with the general pattern of Trump voters not being doctrinaire economic conservatives.

Social conservatism

Trump voters are socially conservative relative to the country as a whole, but not relative to other Republicans. Ted Cruz was the candidate who captured the social conservative vote:


Salon looked yet again at the attitudes of Trump voters towards various groups, this time looking beyond race/ethnicity/religion. They asked “respondents to place various groups and political figures on a scale from 100 (very warm or favorable feeling) to 0 (very cold or unfavorable feeling).” (The graph’s title is unfair. A majority of Trump supporters report positive feelings toward blacks and Hispanics, for instance.) Relative to other Republicans, Trump voters had statistically significant colder feelings toward feminists, gays and lesbians, and transgender people:


Can we reconcile this hostility with Trump voters caring less about same sex marriage (assuming the discrepancy doesn’t just come from comparing to different sorts of surveys)? Perhaps this lack of warm feelings doesn’t translate into policy concerns. Social issues like this might just be less of a concern.

73% of Trump voters are strong supporters of gun rights, versus 66% of Cruz/Carson voters and 42% of Rubio/Kasich voters. I’m not sure what accounts for this, but people who think (incorrectly) that crime is rising are a bit more likely to oppose gun control, so perhaps part of the reason is that Trump voters are more likely to think that crime is rising, which would fit their sense that life is getting worse.

I couldn’t find any information on how Trump supporters in particular feel about “political correctness” (though they want a leader who speaks his mind), but I did find this amusing poll result:

In an October poll by Fairleigh Dickinson University, 68 percent agreed with the proposition that “a big problem this country has is being politically correct.”

It was a sentiment felt strongly across the political spectrum, by 62 percent of Democrats, 68 percent of independents and 81 percent of Republicans. Among whites, 72 percent said they felt that way, but so did 61 percent of nonwhites….

The PC backlash does not necessarily mean that people support the kinds of things that Trump is saying, or the way he says them.

When the Fairleigh Dickinson pollsters added his name to the same question — prefacing it with “Donald Trump said recently . . . ” — the numbers dropped sharply. Only 53 percent said they agree that political correctness is a major problem.

Foreign policy

Trump voters aren’t isolationists, but they are skeptical of engagement with the rest of the world. The Wall Street Journal found that 37% of Trump supporters said that the US should focus on problems at home rather than abroad, the highest among Republicans. Still, not a majority. The best data out there on foreign policy attitudes comes from this Pew study, which I’ll be drawing on. Again, Trump supporters take the hardest lines against the outside world.

54% say that the US does to much to solve the world’s problems, compared to 40% of other Republicans. Even so, a majority of Trump supporters (57%) also say that problems would be worse without American involvement, so some of the opposition must come from a sense of “Not our problem” than of feeling that involvement is counterproductive.

We’ve already seen that Trump supporters are more likely to support a complete halt to Muslims entering the US. Refugees are a major concern:

For those who back Trump in the primary campaign, the large number of refugees leaving Iraq and Syria is especially worrisome. More than eight-in-ten GOP voters who support Trump (85%) say the refugees are a major threat to the U.S., compared with 74% of those who prefer Cruz and 59% who prefer Kasich. Among Trump supporters, only the threat from ISIS (93% major threat) ranks higher than refugees, among the eight issues included. Among Democratic voters, just 40% of Clinton supporters and 34% of Sanders supporters view the refugee migration as a major threat.

Although Trump supporters say we’re doing too much to solve the world’s problems, that does not extend to further reducing America’s military footprint in the Middle East. In fact, they are as or more supportive of intervention than anyone else:


However, Trump supporters are by far the most skeptical of NATO membership. For supporters of every other candidate, Democrat and Republican, 80+% support NATO membership, with only 10+% opposed. Trump voters are the only ones who differ. 64% support membership, but 30% do not. This at least suggests a greater inclination towards a foreign policy based around unilateral use of force. If even NATO is a bit suspect, I can only imagine that the support for cooperation with other nations is even weaker.

Given that Trump supporters favor ground forces against ISIS two-to-one, they can’t rightly be called isolationists. This stance might appear to contradict their belief that the US does too much to fix the world’s problems, but as 93% of Trump supporters also see ISIS as a major threat, no doubt further military action in Mesopotamia is supported for the sake of America rather than the world. I think that there’s another reason though. The opposition to helping solve the world’s problems is mainly opposition to non-military aid. We’ve already discussed opposition to foreign aid, but Trump supporters are also the most opposed to increasing economic ties to the third world:


Somewhat inexplicably, there’s a lot of opposition from all corners to American businesses investing in developing countries. The exact wording, “Would you support or oppose increasing U.S. companies’ investment in developing countries”, seems innocuous. Maybe this is veiled opposition to offshoring? I don’t know. Lots of voters also think that American involvement in the global economy is harmful, but investing abroad would seem to increase national economic power.

Above you can see that Trump supporters are the most opposed to trade too, and free trade agreements in particular. Look at how many feel personally harmed by free trade agreements! That is a dramatic difference with everyone else.

Other than using force against ISIS (and presumably other terrorist groups), they seem to desire withdrawal from the world on all fronts. I think it’s fair to say that a typical Trump voter’s preferred foreign policy is one of economic autarky, minimal engagement with multilateral institutions, and major willingness to use force. This isn’t isolationism exactly, and it isn’t nation building. I would call it nationalism that believes we live in a zero-sum world.


Trump voters are conservative, but only by the standards of America as a whole, not by the standards of the Republican party. He draws much support from people who aren’t actually opposed to lots of government programs, or to abortion or same sex marriage. There’s no evidence that Trump supporters want cuts in spending or tax cuts for the wealthy. Social conservative issues don’t seem to be a motivator. There’s no one “conservative” foreign policy, but their opposition to trade and international engagement is at odds with Republican practice, though not their support of using military force.

Next: Trump supporters: authoritarians?

(Source for header image)

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