Super Tuesday: Explaining the Trump Phenomenon

March 15, 2016

Super Tuesday: Explaining the Trump Phenomenon

 by David Brady and Douglas Rivers

Americans are unhappy with various facets of current institutions and politics. Over two-thirds of us believe that the economic system favors the wealthy and that government wastes a lot of our money.

In addition, over 60 percent believe that special interests use their money to get their way most or all of the time and that the government does not care about people like them. This perception was already rising by the time of the economic crisis of 2007-2008. Afterward, it began accelerating rapidly. Is the rise of Donald Trump a product of this displeasure?

 In order to test this theory, the Economist/YouGov has surveyed its panel of 3,000 Americans monthly since May, asking how many of them believe America is run by a few big interests and whether they thought a significant portion of politicians are crooked.

According to polls conducted by ANES (the American National Election Study) over the last 16 years, those believing the worst have increased dramatically during that time. The two figures below show that in 2002 only one-third of respondents believed America was run by “a few.” In February, 2016, three-quarters of Americans believed it—and the differences between Democrats, Independents and Republicans were minimal. In the early 21st century, about 20 percent of Americans thought that quite a few of those running the government were crooked, but in 14 years, that number had tripled to 58 percent with Republicans and Independents holding this view more than Democrats.


If Trumpism is fueled by people who have become disillusioned with Washington, then it stands to reason that Republicans who believe that government is run for a few and that the politicians are crooked will be more inclined to support Trump over his opponents. This turns out to be exactly the case.


The Economist/YouGov results show that among Republicans who believe that the government is run by a few big interests (75 percent), Trump is preferred by 39 percent to Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio, at 16 and 22 percent, respectively. (Numbers for John Kasich and Ben Carson are insignificant and not included here.) Among Republicans who believe that quite a few people running government are crooked (67 percent), Trump has 41 percent preferring him, as compared to 19 percent and 17 percent for Rubio and Cruz.

In both instances, Trump’s margin is double-digit and impressive. When income and education levels are factored in, the correlation becomes even sharper.

Table 1 shows a comparison of all Republicans who believe the government is run by a few big interests and crooked people, compared to Republicans who make less than $50,000 per year and have a high school education or less, and Republicans who have a college degree or higher and make over $150,000 a year.

The results show that among less-affluent Republicans, Trump has three to four times the support of any other Republican among those believing that government is run for a few, and almost seven times the support for either Cruz or Rubio among those believing that there are quite a few crooks in Washington. The jump in the preference for Trump shows that the phenomenon is partly a result of the less affluent being most supportive. Affluent partisans who are cynical about the government support Trump less than the other groups but their negative opinion of the government keeps their Trump support levels higher than they would be without their doubts about the government.

Affluent Republicans who don’t think the government is run for the few and think there are hardly any crooks in Washington prefer Rubio over Trump by double digits. The trouble is that the number of Republicans who have don’t distrust the government is less than 30 percent.

Many conservatives have complained that Trump has in the past advocated social and economic views, including praise for Planned Parenthood and opposition to free trade, which are not conservative positions.

This is true, but perhaps irrelevant—as he keeps winning anyway. Is it simply the case that his supporters do not hold traditional conservative positions?

When asked in January which issues are most important, the less affluent chose Social Security (29 percent), terrorism (15 percent) and education (12 percent) over the economy, income inequality and budget deficits. Their affluent counterparts focused on almost the opposite issues — the state of the economy (32 percent) and budget deficits (12 percent) over immigration and terrorism, and they do not mention Social Security and education.

These groups also differ on policy: 62 percent of less-affluent Republicans favor raising taxes on those making over $250,000, while for prosperous Republicans the number is only 11 percent. On immigration, 66 percent and 75 percent of the less affluent believe illegals should be required to leave the country and favor building a wall on the southern U.S. border while for affluent the numbers are 47 percent and 52 percent.

On social issues such as abortion, 63 percent of the less affluent say abortion should be illegal in most or all cases, while for the affluent the number is 45 percent. The split on gay marriage is similar with a majority (57 percent) of the less affluent favoring a ban, and less than 25 percent of the affluent favoring one. Even on issues where the majority of both groups are in agreement, the less affluent take more liberal positions, favoring increasing the minimum wage by a 3-1- ratio, and they favor free college tuition at nearly similar levels. Regarding gun control, the less-affluent are more conservative than prosperous Republicans, with about 23 percent saying we should have fewer or no restrictions on guns.

In sum, much of Donald Trump’s support appears to come from Republicans who have lost faith in Washington. Republicans’ attitudes on trust and corruption in the capital help determine their candidate preferences. In addition, the less-affluent are concerned with a different set of issues and are not as conservative as other Republicans when it comes to taxes on the well-to-do, while they are more conservative on immigration and social issues.

These voters are turning out in large numbers in the early primaries. Turnout through the first 14 Republican primaries in 2016 was more than double 2012 levels. Donald Trump has in his camp voters who are less affluent and highly committed—and they are sending the GOP establishment a strong signal that some of the the politics and policies it has been pursuing are not in sync with a significant portion of the voters the party acquired in the Reagan era.

David Brady is a professor of political science at Stanford University and the Davies Family Senior Fellow at the Hoover Institution.

Douglas Rivers is a professor of political science at Stanford , a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution and senior scientist at You/Gov.

14 thoughts on “Super Tuesday: Explaining the Trump Phenomenon

  1. Washington politics have not changed since the days when I was a student at The George Washington University (1968-1970). My American classmates used to joke about the politicians who populate the House and the Senate in Congress. Now Legislators have become increasingly remote from people who put them there. Trump is exploiting the situation and promising to change partisan politics in Congress. Believe him? Promises, Promises, Promises, to quote Dionne Warwick (1968):

    Obama said this before, but now as President he knows how difficult it is to get things done:

    Senators and Representatives are subject to the control of K Street lobbyists so that it has very difficult to get any serious legislation through. Try to get a gun control law through. The NRA has Capitol Hill under its control. Anyone care to comment? –Din Merican

  2. []
    D’Souza said Democratic politicians attempt to hide their party’s past connections to segregation by “blaming America” as a whole.

    “The reality is America didn’t do it, the Democrats did. Now, another story from the Democrats is they changed, that somehow recently they became enlightened and they became the good guys and the bad guys all became the Republicans. This is the story of the so-called switch,” he said. “But the truth of it is there never was a switch. The Democrats now are the same as they always were.”

    D’Souza said former President Abraham Lincoln described slavery as “you work, I eat.” According to D’Souza, that defines the modern Democratic Party.

    “This concept of ‘you work, I eat’ is still the center of the politics of the Democratic Party. They were playing plantation politics back then and they are playing plantation politics right now,” D’Souza said.

  3. I understand why so called analyst are framing the Trump discussion in terms of big government trust issues because the unpleasant truth is that the majority of Trump supporters are the disenfranchised white base (or think they are disenfranchised) who believe they are engaged in some sort of culture war.

  4. Super power in the eye of the world. No matter who get that top post, the world ain’t going to change. Always talking about human right n justice but never show any seriousness to it.

  5. []
    Reagan continued, “It always has been. How do we call a liberal? You know, someone very profoundly once said many years ago that if fascism ever comes to America, it will come in the name of liberalism.”

    “And what is fascism?” Reagan said. “Fascism is private ownership, private enterprise, but total government control and regulation. Well, isn’t this the liberal philosophy?”

    “The conservative, so-called, is the one that says less government, get off my back, get out of my pocket, and let me have more control of my own destiny,” he said.

  6. Dear hutchrun 10:57 am

    Southern Democrats-lah! (also called “Dixiecrats”).
    They have now morphed into Southern Republicans.

    These were/are the ones who fought tooth and nail against desegregation and Civil Rights for African-Americans.

  7. The heroic story of the “Freedom Riders” (who risked their lives travelling through the Deep South of the USA) :

  8. The problem, Din , in Washington, Money, Big Money matters more to the controlling lobbyists than politics or anything else.

    The Americans (Republicans) have gotten so disillusionary with the trust on their leaders that they have become anti- establishment and got hooked by the supposedly cure-all medicines being offered by the present crop of Republican candidates led by Trump who had been conducting their campaign business like a bunch of “snake oil merchants ” selling empty promises and false hopes.

    The candiates behavior is anything and everything other than presidential, while their members have felt betrayal.

  9. Majority of American wants gun control. However, NRA is better in campaigning against gun control. Gun Control group are not as organize as NRA. Thus, the message of taking away gun rights help garner voters support NRA sanctioned politicians. In addition, gun control are not Democrat/Indepent voter main concern.

  10. Din is right, politics in Washington hasn’t changed. But America has changed and mostly for the better. When I first came, Asian sat together at one corner of the Student Union, white at the other & black at yet another. Today students of all races intermingle together. Then, many golf courses didn’t let me play because of my race. Thank to Tiger Woods, today I’m a member of Olympic Golf Club that was white only. For a very long time I’ve not heard anyone calling me to ‘go back to China’. Racialism still exists & needs improvement. But it’s not like Rev. Al Sharpton painted we’re at the brink of racial war, that police is out killing black youngsters, ignoring the fact many police officers were shot & killed by black gangs. As for politics, most Americans are apolitical. They talk more about sports & entertainments among friends, little about politics & almost none on religions. In my family we’ve Republican, Democrat, Independent & Green Party.

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