When Donald Trump announced he was running for president on June 16, the idea seemed faintly ridiculous. The Washington Post said that he faced “an uphill battle to be taken seriously by his rivals, political watchers and the media.” The New York Times described it as an “improbable quest for the Republican nomination.” He was polling at less than 3 percent.
A month later, Trump was at 15 percent. Despite a stream of what would seem like embarrassing gaffes for most candidates, he is now over 27 percent in the RealClearPolitics averages—well ahead of anyone else. The big loser seemed to be the former front-runner, Jeb Bush, who is now mired in the single digits.
How did Trump manage this feat? Will we look back at this next year as just a reality TV episode gone wrong? Or is this a real disruption in American politics with a large block of disaffected voters having found their oracle? We don’t pretend to be able to predict the future, but we think that a lot of the press coverage of Trump misreads who is supporting him and what it means.
First, Trump’s support is not particularly ideological. In recent YouGov polls, 20 percent of his supporters describe themselves as “liberal” or “moderate,” with 65 percent saying they are “conservative” and only 13 percent labeling themselves as “very conservative.” Less than a third of his supporters say they are involved with the Tea Party movement. Their views put them on the right side of the American electorate, but they cover the Republican mainstream.
In terms of demographics, Trump’s supporters are a bit older, less educated and earn less than the average Republican. Slightly over half are women. About half are between 45 and 64 years of age, with another 34 percent over 65 years old and less than 2 percent younger than 30. One half of his voters have a high school education or less, compared to 19 percent with a college or post-graduate degree. Slightly over a third of his supporters earn less than $50,000 per year, while 11 percent earn over $100,000 per year. Definitely not country club Republicans, but not terribly unusual either.
On Aug.18-20, we re-contacted 1,418 people who had taken YouGov surveys between May 9 and June 9 of this year and asked them who they were supporting for president. None of our surveys in May and early June offered Trump as an option for the Republican nominee. Of the individuals in our sample, 608— or 43 percent—identified themselves as Republicans or leaning toward the Republican Party. Unlike most polls, which interview people only once, we can trace how these Republicans have changed their allegiances over the past three months.
While the attention devoted to Trump has taken the exclamation point off of Jeb!, we find that Trump peeled off less support from Bush than from any other candidate. Overall, Trump has drawn disproportionate support from the bottom dozen or so Republican candidates, but he has taken a good deal of support from nearly everyone except Bush.
Pre-Trump, the top five candidates were Bush, Ted Cruz, Rand Paul, Marco Rubio, and Scott Walker, capturing together the support of about 60 percent of Republican primary voters. Since regular Republicans are more likely to vote in primaries and attend caucuses than are leaners, we break the 608 Republican respondents into 471 regular and 137 leaning Republicans.
Looking at the numbers pre and post Trump’s announcement reveals that among May’s top five candidates, Paul, Walker and Bush lost 18, 17 and 11 percent, respectively, of their supporters to Trump, while Rubio lost 21 percent and Cruz an astonishing 47 percent to Trump. Among “leaning” Republicans, all candidates (save Rand Paul) hemorrhaged more than 20 percent to Trump, ranging from Walker’s 34 percent to Cruz’s 25 percent loss. Overall, among the top five back in May, Bush was hurt the least and Cruz the most, though all lost votes in the double digits to Trump.
Among the candidates in May who weren’t in the top five, Trump’s entry cost them dearly among regular Republicans. Only one lost less than 20 percent of his support to Trump—Rick Santorum—and he lost 17 percent. John Kasich, Bobby Jindal and Ben Carson lost roughly a quarter of their support to Trump, while Huckabee and Fiorina lost over a third to Trump.
Chris Christie and Rick Perry lost over 60 percent of their regular Republicans, dropping Christie from over 5 percent to less than 3 percent and Perry from about 3 percent to about half that.
Overall, Trump’s support came about equally from the top five candidates (42 percent) and the second-tier candidates (38 percent), with the remaining 20 percent coming from those with “no preference” or “don’t know” responses prior to June 2015. Among those most likely to vote in the Republican nomination process, Trump took 40 percent from the leading candidates and 47 percent from the other 14 candidates, with the remaining 13 percent coming from those uncommitted before Trump.
The Donald appears to have a special appeal to Texans: he took the highest proportion of support from Ted Cruz, then from Rick Perry, which may explain their non-passive reactions to Trump’s candidacy. Cruz publicly extols Trump, praises his followers, and organized a joint appearance with him on Capitol Hill. In Perry’s case, the response was spirited hostility (“What Mr. Trump is offering,” the former Texas governor said, “is not conservatism, it is Trumpism—a toxic mix of demagoguery and nonsense.”)
If the Trump campaign were to end, would his votes go back to the candidates from whence they came? We also asked people who their second choice for the nomination was, and the results for Trump voters are somewhat surprising. Only three candidates in the large Republican field get into double digits and just barely, at that. Ben Carson is the second choice for 13 percent of Trump backers, and Carly Fiorina is the choice of 10 percent. Jeb Bush is also the second choice of 10 percent of Trump voters—about the same proportion that abandoned him for Trump. After these three candidates, second choices are widely spread, with the exception of Jim Gilmore, Lindsey Graham, George Pataki, Jindal, and Perry at roughly zero percent or within error variance of zero. Sen. Cruz, who lost the most support to Trump, is the second choice of only 9 percent of Trump supporters.
What do these results tell us about the Trump candidacy?
First, that most of his support comes from candidates already in the race and not from newly inspired voters. Second, his campaign drew from both the front-runners and the second-tier candidates and hurt Ted Cruz among the front-runners and Rick Perry among the second-tier candidates the most.
Third, his support comes from across the full range of Republican identifiers but is slightly higher among those who are less well educated, earn less than $50,000 annually and are slightly older.
Fourth, Tea Party respondents supported Trump at slightly lower levels than the totals for Cruz and Fiorina but higher than for the rest of the field.
Fifth, if his candidacy falters or he quits the race, no single candidate benefits in more than the low double digits, and those he hurt the most—Cruz and Perry—probably do not make up their losses, notwithstanding Cruz’s machinations.
David Brady is a professor of political science at Stanford University and a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution. Douglas Rivers is a professor of political science at Stanford and chief scientist at YouGov.