The Mind Of The Trump Supporter

Over the past several months, considerable attention has been devoted to the mind and mindfulness -- or lack thereof -- of Donald Trump. There has been less of a focus on the mind of the Trump supporter.
08/29/2016 11:52 am ET Updated Aug 30, 2017

Over the past several months, considerable attention has been devoted to the mind and mindfulness -- or lack thereof -- of Donald Trump. There has been less of a focus on the mind of the Trump supporter.

Specifically, who are they? What are they thinking about? Why are they supporting the Donald? How do they compare to other citizens who will be voting in this presidential election cycle?

It is well documented that in general the Trump support base tends to skew male, older, whiter, and less-well educated. That really doesn't tell us very much about these supporters, however.

As we advised in a blog that we wrote during the 2012 presidential election race, "Frequently, citizens' votes have more to do with who they are rather than who the candidates are or what their ads say. That's why when it comes to winning elections in close races understanding psychographics trumps demographics."

In that earlier blog, we noted that voters can be classified into three broad psychographic categories: High anxiety, low information and moderate expectations.

High anxiety voters are "true believers" in either their party or their candidate.

Low information voters are of two types. On the one hand, they are many of the high anxiety voters who only consume intake from a single source -- think Fox or MSNBC depending on one's political predisposition. On the other hand, they are more disinterested voters who use a party label, a candidate's race, religion or some other characteristic, or a wedge issue(s) to make their voting decision.

Voters of moderate expectations, in contrast, cover a wide spectrum. They don't see government as the root of all evil or the solution to all problems. They weigh and balance the alternatives. They do their homework, put things to the reasonableness test, and decide who will get their votes.

Given this psychographic framework, into which categories do the Trump supporters fit? Before we answer that, let us state that the Trump supporters are of two principal types: right wing populists and Republican diehards.

The right wing populist types can be characterized as low information voters. Trump's appeal for them has been driven largely by his "outsider" status, railing at the Republican political elite and party leadership that has not treated its "working class" members properly; and, speaking out loudly on wedge or hot button issues of importance to them such as illegal immigration or terrorism.

Trump channeled their anger and gave it his voice. He was thinking thoughts and saying things that they wanted to say in the way that they wanted them said.

Following, is what various researchers and analysts have discovered about what is on and in their minds:

  • Johnathan Haidt and Emily Ekins of the Cato Institute found, "Among Republicans, four moral patterns stand out... Voters who still score high on authority/loyalty/sanctity and low on care... are significantly more likely to vote for Donald Trump. These are the true authoritarians..."
  • The 2015 American Values Survey done by the Public Religion Research Institute showed that "Roughly three quarters (74 percent) of Trump supporters -- compared to 57 percent of supporters of all other Republican candidates agree that today, discrimination against whites has become as big a problem as discrimination against blacks and other minorities."
  • Michael Tesler, an associate professor of political science at the University of California in Irvine, after analyzing data from different sources, concludes, "Republicans who scored highest on racial resentment were about 30 percentage points more likely to support Trump than their more moderate counterparts."
  • According to a Reuters/Ipsos opinion poll of 16,000 Americans conducted between March and June 2016, "Supporters of U.S. presidential candidate Donald Trump are more likely to describe African Americans as 'criminal,' 'unintelligent,' 'lazy,' and 'violent' than voters who backed some Republican rivals in the primaries or who support Democratic contender Hillary Clinton..."
  • Finally, writing for The Atlantic senior editor Derek Thompson identifies the following features of Trump backers. They: Didn't go to college. Live in parts of the country with racial resentment. Don't think they have a political voice. Want to wage an interior war against outsiders (e.g., Muslims, illegal immigrants).

In summary, the early adapters and the ardent advocates for Donald Trump's positions are "outsiders." They are different than those supporters who have joined the Trump camp after the other Republican candidates left the primary field and since his acceptance of the nomination at the Republican Convention in Cleveland.

These supporters whom we have labeled Republican diehards fall into the High Anxiety category. When asked how they can do a complete turnabout and support Donald Trump rather than their earlier and much more preferred choices, their usual retort is, "Anyone but Hillary."

What they really mean is anyone but a Democrat. That is the case because they have been the insiders in the Party for some time. They know which side their bread is buttered on and it is not the Democratic side.

These supporters come from across the Republican party continuum. As The New York Times Sunday Review of August 21 highlighted in two articles, they include members of the NRA, or as Donald Trump calls them "Second Amendment people," and conservative white evangelicals.

In his article, Daniel Hayes points out that, "What gun owners hear when Mr. Trump echoes N.R.A. talking points against certain kinds of gun control is that they can be trusted, that they are responsible citizens. No politician since Ronald Reagan has affirmed them the way that Donald Trump has."

In his article, Daniel K. Williams, professor of history at the University of West Georgia, highlights the fact that as "late as May a majority of evangelical leaders said they intended to vote against the thrice married adulterer and longtime supporter of Planned Parenthood." Williams continues to state that now, "Nearly 80 percent of white evangelicals plan to vote for Mr. Trump according to summer polling." That's because "they believe his election is the only way to regain control of the Supreme Court."

It's said that politics makes strange bed fellows. That is proven in this instance by the nature of the current Trump support base which is an alliance of some of the ultimate Republican diehard insiders with the ultimate Republican outsiders, the right wing populists.

Nearly every pundit and pollster has observed that this alliance will be insufficient to win in the places that matter -- the battleground states. During the primaries some commentators thought that Trump might be able to appeal to and attract some of the Bernie Sanders left wing populist support. Even at this time, the Trump campaign is trying to bring in Sanders' voters.

This is essentially a fool's errant. That's so because as we pointed out in an earlier blog comparing the two groups what's on the mind of the left wing populist is significantly different than what's on the mind of the right wing populist.

According to Haidt and Ekins of the Cato Institute, the Sanders supporters score low on authority/loyalty/sanctity where the Trump supporters score high. They are polar opposites in terms of their psychographics

Recent poll results bear this out. An analysis done by FiveThirtyEight in early August using four polls discloses that with a third party candidate option only 6 percent of the Sanders' supporters say they are likely to support Trump -- without a third party candidate option the number only rises to a spindly 9 percent for Trump. In stark contrast, Hillary Clinton's numbers rise from 63 percent with a third party candidate option to 78 percent without.

That leaves voters of Moderate Expectations. Could there be likely Trump supporters among them? No doubt there will be a few but very few. Or, as the Donald might put it very, very, very few.

That's because, given the operational definition of the folks in this category, they fall outside the zone of influence for Trump's hyperbole and histrionics. They tend to be independent in orientation rather than tied to a party.

In 2014, the Pew Research Center did an in-depth national study of party affiliation which showed that the voting base, as self described, was comprised of 39 percent independents, 32 percent Democrats and 23 percent Republicans. When partisan "leanings" were taken into account, the Democrats rose to 48 percent and Republicans to 39 percent leaving 13 percent as "true" independents.

These are the voters who will help to swing things in the swing states in the presidential election this year. The number of folks who are truly independent may be even lower than 13 percent.

Joshua Holland writes in an article for The Nation that "floating voters" -- people who have cast votes for both parties in the past -- "now represents around 5 percent of the electorate.

We can't look into the minds of that 5 percent -- or 13 percent, or whatever the actual percentage is -- to determine whom they will vote for in November. But, we do know they will be making up their own minds and their minds and psychographic profile does not match that of the Trump supporter.

Some things might change between now and November 8 but most minds will not. This does not bode well for Mr. Trump and his supporters.

Keep that in mind. And, also remember, a mind is a terrible thing to waste.

[In the interests of full and open disclosure, Frank Islam is on Hillary Clinton's national finance committee.]