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Trump's base wants to hold on to the past at all costs

Trump's base wants to hold on to the past at all costs

White doves are released at the start of a Pro-Trump march, organized by Make America Great Again, in Huntington Beach, Calif. on March 25. (Los Angeles Times)
White doves are released at the start of a Pro-Trump march, organized by Make America Great Again, in Huntington Beach, Calif. on March 25. (Los Angeles Times)

President Trump may have lost the popular vote last November, but his campaign was clearly onto something powerful. The Elections Research Center at the University of Wisconsin-Madison recently commissioned a national survey to find out what it was.

We surveyed a representative sample of 2,000 Americans across the country and found that Trump voters have different views not only from Hillary Clinton supporters, but also from those who were sufficiently alienated to vote for a third-party candidate or to not vote at all.

Trump voters embraced the “Make America Great Again” message that he hammered home during the campaign. When Trump voters hear “Make America Great Again,” they imagine a brand of populism that values average people over elites, tamps down on political correctness, and rolls back social norms to those of an earlier time.

Without using the words “political correctness,” we asked respondents whether they believe that “the way people talk needs to change with the times to be more sensitive to people from different backgrounds” or if “this has already gone too far and many people are just too easily offended.” More than two-thirds of Clinton voters said our language needs to evolve. Most nonvoters also favored more inclusive language. By contrast, 85% of Trump voters said that we have gone too far to protect the offended.

85% of Trump voters said that we have gone too far to protect the offended.

We also asked respondents whether “change in a society is a good thing or a bad thing.” As we might expect in a country defined by immigration, more than three-quarters of Americans said that social change is inherently good. This view was embraced by nonvoters, third-party voters and especially Clinton supporters. Again, Trump voters stood apart: 39% said change is a bad thing.

When we asked respondents if “many groups in society are getting special treatment while the average American is being ignored,” only a quarter of Clinton voters and a third of nonvoters strongly agreed with the statement. Three-quarters of Trump voters did.

Trump drew people who want to hold onto the status quo. This trait showed up even in the seemingly nonpolitical question we asked — whether respondents “enjoy trying food, movies and other things that are new and different.” About 42% of Clinton voters and 36% of nonvoters “strongly agreed” that they were game for new experiences, but only 25% of Trump voters said the same.

The distinctiveness of Trump voters is both an asset and challenge for the president. His message resonates with them in a way that fosters loyalty. But we did not find broad support for his “Make America Great Again” vision, which puts a hard limit on how much Trump will be able to expand his base.

Barry Burden is a professor of political science and director of the Elections Research Center at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

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