One of the on-going questions this cycle is why so many self-professed conservatives support Donald Trump. The question offers plenty to think about because “conservative” is supposed to mean something in terms of ideology and policy prescriptions, and that doesn’t seem to match what Trump proposes. But first, the question of what it means to be a “conservative” in 2016 should be satisfied.
Recently, National Review’s David French had a piece that did a great job of explaining Trump’s support. French takes what he sees in his home state of Tennessee and extrapolates that to the rest of the country:
Tennessee didn’t change dramatically between 2004 (when Democrats were in total control of state government) and 2011 (when control flipped to Republicans), but national politics changed. And — as Donald Trump is proving — they can change again.
What politics is he talking about? He says that it is the often referred to as “Ronald Reagan’s ‘Three Legged Stool:'” patriotism, economics, and cultural conservatism.
In French’s estimation, Trump supporters see patriotism in terms of using the military only when the United States needs to and stemming the tide of illegal immigration. On economics, he argues that they are not so much for free trade in the abstract as they are for ensuring that they benefit from the free trade; if those benefits do not materialize, they oppose it. Culturally, he explains that they are not overly religious, but oppose the debauchery of the Left. As he puts it:
The GOP underestimated Trump in part because it overestimated the conservatism of its own southern, rural northern, and Midwestern base. It underestimated the extent to which many of its voters hadn’t so much embraced the corporate conservatism of the Chamber of Commerce or the constitutional conservatism of the Tea Party as much as they had rejected the extremism of the increasingly shrill and politically correct Left. And, yes, the size of this population calls into question the very process of building a national Republican electoral majority, but it also threatens Democrats who seem intent on drumming every blue-collar white male straight out of the party.
These characteristics are good descriptors of the type of “conservatives” supporting Trump, but what French does not do is take it the logical step further: that is, to consider that the definition of “conservative” is no longer what is was when National Review was founded in 1955 and Barry Goldwater’s lost in 1964.
The signs of this shift were evident in the mid-90s but no one took the time to understand it until people like Sean Trende began looking into it after the 2012 debacle. Trende explains that the largest drop in turnout was among white voters and these white voters had characteristics that comprised what he calls the Perot Coalition (as in Ross Perot:
The drop in turnout [in 2012] occurs in a rough diagonal, stretching from northern Maine, across upstate New York (perhaps surprisingly, turnout in post-Sandy New York City dropped off relatively little), and down into New Mexico. Michigan and the non-swing state, non-Mormon Mountain West also stand out. Note also that turnout is surprisingly stable in the Deep South; Romney’s problem was not with the Republican base or evangelicals (who constituted a larger share of the electorate than they did in 2004).
For those with long memories, this stands out as the heart of the “Perot coalition.” That coalition was strongest with secular, blue-collar, often rural voters who were turned off by Bill Clinton’s perceived liberalism and George H.W. Bush’s elitism.
[According to my analysis] a county’s vote for Ross Perot in 1992 comes back statistically significant, and suggests that a higher vote for Perot in a county did, in fact, correlate with a drop-off in voter turnout in 2012.
What does that tell us about these voters? As I noted, they tended to be downscale, blue-collar whites. They weren’t evangelicals; Ross Perot was pro-choice, in favor of gay rights, and in favor of some gun control. You probably didn’t know that, though, and neither did most voters, because that’s not what his campaign was about.
His campaign was focused on his fiercely populist stance on economics. He was a deficit hawk, favoring tax hikes on the rich to help balance the budget. He was staunchly opposed to illegal immigration as well as to free trade (and especially the North American Free Trade Agreement). He advocated more spending on education, and even Medicare-for-all. Given the overall demographic and political orientation of these voters, one can see why they would stay home rather than vote for an urban liberal like President Obama or a severely pro-business venture capitalist like Mitt Romney.
The Perot voters Trende describes sound an awful lot like the Trump supporters described by French. And, to further drive this point home, take a look at the map Trende provides showing where the voter turnout dropped in 2012 compared to 2008 (the bluer the area, the bigger the drop) and a map French provides showing Trump’s support:
The parallels are striking.
Ideological Conservatives — what I like to call Movement Conservatives — might say this analysis does not describe them, but they miss that their priorities and those of most voters who identify as “conservative” do not match. If they did, then Democrats would have a much harder time and and the great Leviathan could be slain forever. Unfortunately, the correlation between these two groups is only skin-deep. If Movement Conservatism is going to have any viability moving forward, it better understand who these people are and attempt to bring them into the fold.
Voters who call themselves “conservative” are typically not interested in F. A. Hayek or Russel Kirk. They don’t know why Whittaker Chambers wrote Ayn Rand out of the Conservative Movement, nor who either of them were, nor would they care much if informed. What they do understand is that Ronald Reagan was a strong president, that political correctness is gut-wrenching, and that someone needs to “make America great again.”
We need to figure out how to talk to them.