"These Trump supporters are horrible; how do we get their vote?" is the contradictory message heard from various Democratic corners these days.
While Republican presidential frontrunner Donald Trump has gained support with appeals to some of the worst aspects of the American zeitgeist, some liberals now recognize that his supporters are a demographic group that the Democrats should listen to.
The most detailed study yet of Trump supporters was reported by Nate Cohn Thursday for The New York Times. Using a massive sample of 11,000 potential Republican primary voters, Civis Analytics, a Democratic firm, found that Trump's core supporters are likely registered Democrats who tend to vote Republican in presidential races.
In addition to being registered Democrats who self-identify as Republican, Trump's supporters are "less affluent, less educated and less likely to turn out to vote." These supporters tend to be concentrated along a broad swath of the country from Louisiana, through the Appalachians, to upstate New York. His three best states are West Virginia, New York and North Carolina, in that order. (The NYT report has a convenient heat map.)
The report also found that Trump's support tends to overlap with another report showing areas with the most racially charged Internet searches (an indicator of racism). Plus, those areas overlap well with where Hillary Clinton did best when she ran against Barack Obama for the Democratic Party nomination in 2008, Cohn pointed out.
Data aggregated at the congressional district level cannot determine causation at the individual level — you cannot say that Trump's supporters are racist based upon this information, in other words. But, it does indicate the possablity that Trump's support comes from those easily mobilized by bigotry.
One of the most important findings in political science since the early 1990s is that most voters views on most issues are characterized by ambivalence. They have many competing views in their heads when deciding where they stand on an issue. Which view surfaces, becomes their "top of the head" response, can be influenced by recent conversations or events in the news.
When Trump uses messaging with, for instance, anti-Muslim, anti-immigrant or anti-Mexican overtones, he helps to surface those latent bigotries. As a communicator, Trump is one of the most skilled modern politicians at doing this.
A caveat: Trump's support does not only come from these voters. If that were the case he would not be leading by such a wide margin. The report points out that Trump is leading among all the major demographic groups, including registered Republicans. He even leads among Latino Republicans, though by a thin margin.
What the report found, however, is his strongest support comes from the blue collar, mostly white, mostly Democrat, families. For instance, his support among registered Republicans is 29 percent, but among registered Democrats likely to vote in the Republican primary, it's 43 percent.
On a measure of likelihood of voting in the primary, Trump does best among those least likely to vote (40 percent), and worst among those most likely to vote (29 percent).
Unlike the other candidates, the challenge for Trump's campaign is first, in the states that do not allow registered Democrats to vote in the Republican primary or only allow registered Republicans to vote in the Republican primary, to switch their party affiliation; and second, to get them to the polls on election day. (Some states require voters to register party affiliation when they register to vote while others do not.)
As the Trump campaign figures out the challenges of its core supporters, on the other side of the political divide some Democrats are wondering how they lost these voters, and how they might get them back.
Obama described his understanding of the Trump phenomenon a couple of weeks ago in an interview for NPR.
"[…] particularly blue-collar men have had a lot of trouble in this new economy, where they are no longer getting the same bargain that they got when they were going to a factory and able to support their families on a single paycheck," he said.
"You combine those things, and it means that there is going to be potential anger, frustration, fear — some of it justified, but just misdirected. I think somebody like Mr. Trump is taking advantage of that. That's what he's exploiting during the course of his campaign."
Obama's analysis is correct. Trump's main support comes from those who are angry and frustrated, and rightly so. They've seen others gain while their economic situation has remained stagnant or worsened.
David Frum, a former speechwriter for President George W. Bush, described Trump supporters for The Atlantic's January cover story:
"The angriest and most pessimistic people in America are the people we used to call Middle Americans. Middle-class and middle-aged; not rich and not poor; people who are irked when asked to press 1 for English, and who wonder how white male became an accusation rather than a description.
"You can measure their pessimism in polls that ask about their expectations for their lives—and for those of their children. On both counts, whites without a college degree express the bleakest view. You can see the effects of their despair in the new statistics describing horrifying rates of suicide and substance-abuse fatality among this same group, in middle age.
"White Middle Americans express heavy mistrust of every institution in American society: not only government, but corporations, unions, even the political party they typically vote for — the Republican Party of Romney, Ryan, and McConnell, which they despise as a sad crew of weaklings and sellouts. They are pissed off. And when Donald Trump came along, they were the people who told the pollsters, 'That's my guy.'"
They aren't necessarily superconservative. They often don't think in ideological terms at all. But they do strongly feel that life in this country used to be better for people like them — and they want that older country back."
In addition to Obama's remarks, there have been several articles about working-class white people from liberal and left-of-center sources.
In a Nov. 29, 2015, op-ed for The Washington Post, Democrat E.J. Dionne recommends empathy for Trump supporters.
A couple of weeks later, political scientist William Galston, Dionne's colleague at Brookings Institution, authored a similar op-ed for The Wall Street Journal.
Don't turn away from Trump voters, Galston advized his fellow Democrats. (He once worked for the Bill Clinton administration.) Instead, consider how to win those voters.