Meet the People Behind Donald Trump's Popularity

Survey Research Through 2016 Reveals Stark Trends in Voters and Values

Who are the Trump supporters, and what do they believe in?
Donald Trump supporters gather at Settlers Park to attend a rally for Trump on the first day of the Republican National Convention (RNC) on July 18, 2016 in downtown Cleveland, Ohio. Jeff J. Mitchell/Getty Images

Many were shocked by Donald Trump's rise to prominence through the 2016 Republican primaries, and even more so by his win of the presidency. Simultaneously, many were thrilled by it. Who are the people behind Trump's success?

Throughout the 2016 primary season, Pew Research Center regularly surveyed voters, Republican and Democrat alike, and produced a series of illuminating reports on demographic trends among supporters of particular candidates, and on the values, beliefs, and fears that drive their political decisions.

Let's take a look at this data, which provides an in-depth look at the people behind Donald Trump's popularity.

More Men than Women

Trump was through the primaries and as the Republican nominee more popular among men than women. Pew found in January 2016 that men among Republican voters had more confidence in Trump than did women, and they found that men supported him more than women when they surveyed voters in March 2016. Once Trump and Clinton officially faced off in the general election, the greater appeal of Trump to men became even more clear, with just 35 percent of women voters aligning with him.

More Old than Young

Throughout his campaign, Trump was consistently more popular among older voters than he had been among younger ones. Pew found in January 2016 that Trump's ratings among Republican voters were highest with those  40 years and older, and this trend held true as more voters switched to supporting him in March 2016.

Pew also found in their study, conducted in April and May 2016, that warmth toward Trump increases with age, and coldness toward him decreased. A full 45 percent of Republicans aged 18‒29 feel coldly toward Trump, while just 37 percent feel warmly toward him. Conversely, 49 percent of those aged 30‒49 feel warmly toward him, 60 percent of those aged 50‒64 do, as did 56 percent of those over 65 years of age.

And according to Pew's data, in a face-off with Clinton Trump was expected to capture just 30 percent of the vote among those 18‒29 years of age. The proportion of those who preferred Trump to Clinton increased with each age bracket, but it is not until voters pass 65 years of age that Trump got the advantage. 

Less Rather than More Education

Trump's popularity was also consistently greater among those with lower levels of formal education. Back in the primary season, when Pew surveyed Republican voters and asked them which candidates they preferred, Trump's ratings were highest among those who had not attained a college degree. This trend remained consistent when Pew surveyed Republican voters again in March 2016 and revealed that his popularity was highest among those whose highest degree was a high school diploma. This trend bears out in an examination of supporters of Trump versus Clinton too, with Clinton far more popular among those with higher levels of education.

Lower Income, and Against Free Trade

Trump's greater appeal to those with less rather than more household income is unsurprising, given the statistical relationship between education and income. While still competing against other Republican candidates in the primaries, Pew found in March 2016 that Trump was more popular among voters with lower income levels than among those with higher levels.

At that time, his popularity was greatest among those whose household income was below $30,000 per year. This trend gave Trump an edge in the primaries, and perhaps over Clinton as well, because there are more citizens living at, around, or below that income level than there are those who live on incomes higher than it.

As compared with those who supported Clinton, Trump supporters are more likely to report that their household income is falling behind the cost of living (61 versus 47 percent). Even across income brackets for supporters of both candidates, Trump supporters were more likely to report this, outweighing Clinton supporters by 15 percentage points among those whose household income is $30,000 or less, 8 points among those in the $30,000-74,999 bracket, and by 21 points among those with a household income above $75,000.

Perhaps connected to the correlation between household income and support for Trump is the fact that his supporters were more likely than other Republican voters in March-April 2016 to say that free trade agreements have hurt their personal finances, and the majority, 67 percent, say that free trade agreements have been bad for the U.S. That's a figure that was 14 points higher than the average Republican voter during the primaries.

White People and Acculturated Hispanics

Pew found in a June 2016 survey of both Republican and Democratic voters that Trump's popularity lies primarily in white people—half of whom support Trump, while just 7 percent of black voters support him. He was more popular among Hispanic voters than among blacks, capturing the support of about a quarter of them.

Interestingly, Pew found though that support for Trump among Hispanics came primarily from English-dominant voters. In fact, the English-dominant Hispanic electorate was closely split between Clinton and Trump, at 48 percent for Clinton, and 41 for Trump. Whereas among bilingual or Spanish-dominant Hispanics, 80 percent intended to vote for Clinton and just 11 percent indicated they would choose Trump. This signals a relationship between one's level of acculturation—adoption of the dominant, mainstream culture—and voter preference. It likely also signals a positive relationship between the number of generations an immigrant family has lived in the U.S. and preference for Trump.

Atheists and Evangelicals

When Pew surveyed Republican voters in March 2016 they found that Trump's popularity was greatest among those who are not religious, and among those who are religious but do not regularly attend religious services.

Yet, at that time he also led his opponents among those who are religious. Curiously, Trump is especially popular among white evangelical Christians, who overwhelmingly believed that he would do a far better job than Clinton on every issue.

Against Racial Diversity, Immigration, and Muslims

As compared with those who supported other Republican candidates during the primaries, Trump supporters were more likely to believe that greater scrutiny of Muslims living in the U.S. will make the country safer. Specifically, a Pew survey conducted in March 2016 found that Trump supporters were more likely than those who support other candidates to believe that Muslims should be subjected to greater scrutiny than other religious groups as a method of preventing terrorism and that Islam is more likely than other religions to encourage violence.

At the same time, the survey of Republican voters found a strong and consistent anti-immigrant sentiment among Trump supporters. Those who backed him in March 2016 were only half as likely as other Republican voters to say immigrants strengthen the country, and they were far more likely to favor building a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border (84 percent versus 56 percent among other Republican voters). As one can deduce from these findings, the majority of Trump supporters view immigrants as a burden to the country, as a threat to "U.S. values," and favor the expulsion of undocumented immigrants.

Consistent with these findings, Pew's April-May 2016 survey also found that the heavily older, white male fan-base of Trump believes that the growing racial diversity of the nation, which will soon make the population a majority of racial minorities, is bad for the country.

Trump Will Make America Great Again

Trump supporters have high expectation for their candidate. A Pew survey conducted between June and July 2016 found that the majority of Trump supporters believed that as a president he would make the immigration situation "a lot better," and even more believed that he would improve it a little. Together, that means 86 percent of Trump's supporters believed that his policies would improve immigration (presumably lessen it). They also overwhelmingly believed that a Trump presidency would make the U.S. safer from terrorism and improve the economy.

But They Do Not Actually Like Him

Fewer than half of Trump supporters ascribed any positive traits to their chosen candidate, according to a June-July 2016 Pew survey. Very few consider him well-informed or admirable. Only a minority expected that he would be willing to work with those he disagrees with, that he could unite the country, and that he is honest. They did, however, feel that he has deeply held beliefs and that he is extreme.

The Big Picture

This set of facts, culled from a series of surveys conducted by one of the U.S.'s most respected public opinion research centers, leaves us with a clear picture of those behind Trump's rise to political prominence. They are primarily white, older men with low levels of education and income. They believe that immigrants and free trade deals have harmed their earning power (and they're right about the free trade deals), and they prefer an America in which white people are the majority. Trump's worldview and platform seems to resonate with them.

Yet, following the election, exit poll data shows that Trump's appeal was far broader than polling and voting during the primaries suggested. He captured the votes of the vast majority of white people, regardless of age, class, or gender. This racial division in the electorate further played out in the ten days following the election, when a surge of hate crimes, fueled by an embrace of Trump's rhetoric, swept the nation.

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Cole, Nicki Lisa, Ph.D. "Meet the People Behind Donald Trump's Popularity." ThoughtCo, Jul. 7, 2017, Cole, Nicki Lisa, Ph.D. (2017, July 7). Meet the People Behind Donald Trump's Popularity. Retrieved from Cole, Nicki Lisa, Ph.D. "Meet the People Behind Donald Trump's Popularity." ThoughtCo. (accessed March 20, 2018).