by Cliff Young and Chris Jackson
Many argue that Trump’s rise in the polls is nothing but a fluke (link, link, and link); that once the Republican voters come to their senses, a more credible candidate will emerge (link, link, and link). These people may be right; horse race polls are ephemeral at best this early in the election season (Ipsos analysis of election poll accuracy).
This, however, misses the critical point about Trump – and the current anti-establishment furor gripping the Republicans. Independent of the polls, there is a method to Trump’s madness.
Simply put, Trump’s candidacy taps into a deep, visceral fear among many that America’s best days are behind it. That the land of freedom, baseball and apple pie is no longer recognizable ; and that ‘the other’—sometimes the immigrant, sometimes the Non-American , and almost always the nonwhite—is to blame for these circumstances. This pure unabashed nativism (link, link, and link) is Trump’s brand of populism and is fit for purpose in 2015. It both gives him electoral strength and popular appeal.
To understand this, we conducted a recent poll on nativist sentiments and the 2016 election. The results are striking.
- Strong nativist tendencies in America . More than half (58%) of Americans don’t identify with what America has become. Almost as many (53%) feel like a “stranger in their own country”. This sense of loss is particularly pronounced when we look at party identification: while 45% of Democrats don’t identify with what America has become, a whopping 72% of Republicans don’t. Trump’s populism speaks to this real and emotional sense of economic and cultural displacement.
- A significant plurality of the electorate holds nativist attitudes. To get at this, we combine three attitudinal statements in a summated index[i]: “I don’t identify with what America has become,” “I feel like a stranger in my own country,” and “America is [NOT] a place I can feel comfortable as myself”. What do we find? Specifically, 18% agree with all three of these statements and 28% agree with two out of the three. Taken together, 46% of the American public holds some degree of nativist sentiment—not a majority but a significant plurality (see below).
- Nativism is (much) stronger in the Republican Party. It shouldn’t be a surprise that Trump has found a willing audience among Republicans. Indeed, fully 64% of Republicans are moderately or strongly nativist, including over a quarter (26%) who agree with all three of the nativist statements (compared to only 31% moderately or strongly nativist among Democrats). Such trends clearly show Trump’s appeal among the Republican base.
- Nativist Republicans are hostile to establishment candidates (and hospitable to Trump and Carson). Looking at who Republicans support by their leanings[ii], the antipathy felt towards “establishment” Republicans comes into proper sharp relief. Trump performs well with all Republicans, but he certainly is strongest with people who are nativist leaning. This data also shines light on Ben Carson’s recent rise in polls. He’s actually successfully out-Trumped Trump with the most strongly nativist Republicans, likely due to his statements about a Muslim becoming president of the United States. Trump and Carson’s support stands in stark contrast to Jeb Bush who performs best with the slight and non-nativist wings of the Republican party. Likewise, the other establishment Republican candidates (Rubio, Christie, Kasich) also receive only mediocre support from the most nativist base.
So who are these nativist voters who might be kingmakers in 2016? They look something like the Republican party in general. They tend to be whiter than the rest of the population, older, less likely to have a 4-year college degree and live in the South.
So what are the implications? What does this all mean?
In our opinion, Trump’s rise in the polls can only be understood in context of the profound economic and cultural change in America. And his strength, like that of the tea party, is emblematic of deeper felt concerns within the Republican party. On the one hand, many people are scared about their economic future and that of their children as the rate of economic displacement increases with the globalization of cheap labor and technological innovation. The America Dream for many is a distant, foreign concept (See here or here). On the other hand, many people no longer recognize the America of their grandparents—an increasingly nonwhite and correspondingly more liberal country (see here or here). This is scary for many Americans. These concomitant trends are driving an increased sense of economic and cultural displacement among a large chunk of voters—making them prime hunting ground for populists of Trump’s ilk (like Carson).
Donald Trump may have launched his campaign as a vanity project. But he – consciously or not – tapped into a fertile source of political support. And while Trump’s candidacy may not go the distance, this newly energized nativist group will find a home. Expect other Republican candidates to maneuver to claim this newly rediscovered political force.
 The policy of protecting the interests of native inhabitants against those of immigrants.
[i] Constructed as a summated index where is someone agrees with this statement, they are scored as a 1, and if they disagree they are scored as a 0. The coding for the third statement “America is a place I can feel comfortable as myself” was inverted to allow for summation, to represent “America is [NOT] a place I can feel comfortable as myself”. The scale ranges from 0 to 3 with a 3 indicating the respondent agrees with all 3 statements.
[ii] Nativists are defined as people scoring as strong or moderate on the 4 part scale. Non-nativist are people scoring as slight or not nativist on the 4 part scale.