How the GOP can win Trump’s supporters

This post was updated on April 7, 2016.

With Trump’s loss in Wisconsin, the Republican Party now seems headed for what was once unthinkable: a contested convention. If that happens and Trump is denied the nomination, the party will have to figure out a way to hold onto Trump’s voters and keep them from staying home in November.

The first step will be figuring out what the Trump voters care about. A Quinnipiac University survey released on April 5 sheds new light on the well-springs of public support for Donald Trump, and it also elucidates why so many people find his candidacy so objectionable.

Consider the following findings:

  • Seventy-eight percent of Mr. Trump’s backers agree (46% strongly) that “I’m falling further and further behind economically.”
  • Eighty percent believe (55% strongly) that “The government has gone too far in assisting minority groups.”
  • Eighty-five percent agree (55% strongly) that “America has lost its identity.”
  • 91% report feeling (76% strongly) that “My beliefs and values are under attack in America these days.”

So there you have it: Mr. Trump’s supporters are feeling besieged, economically, demographically, and culturally. “Making America great again” means breaking the siege by restoring an America in which they feel respected and secure.

To do this, they say, will require a strong leader.

  • Ninety-five percent of Mr. Trump’s backers agree (83% strongly) that “America needs a powerful political leader who will save us from the problems we face.”
  • Eighty-four percent assert (54% strongly) that we need a leader who is “willing to say or do anything to solve America’s problems.”
  • Seventy-four percent believe (44% strongly) that real leaders “don’t worry about what other people say, they follow their own path.”

Mr. Trump’s followers are literally looking for a savior who will solve our problems single-handedly. To achieve this monumental feat, he must ignore the sentiments of those who disagree with him and be unconstrained by any limits—including moral limits—on the means needed to achieve his ends.

This conception of leadership represents everything the framers of our constitution feared and tried to avert. That a plurality of the members of a major party is desperate enough to endorse it speaks volumes about the dysfunction of our political institutions. To have a chance of prevailing in November, the Republican Party must figure out how to distance itself from this disturbing view while retaining the loyalty of those who find it appealing.

A survey done by the Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI) in conjunction with the Atlantic magazine and released on April 7 adds texture to previously reported findings about Donald Trump’s supporters. PRRI finds that:

  • Sixty-five percent of Trump’s supporters agree that “Because things have gotten so far of track in this country, we need a leader who is willing to break some rules if that’s what it takes to set things right.”  Majorities of those backing all the other presidential candidates, Republican as well as Democratic, disagree.  The survey finds a significant connection between fear of terrorism and the willingness to endorse presidential rule-breaking: 61% of those who are very worried take this position, compared to 39% of those who are not concerned.  Fifty-three percent of Trump’s supporters report being worried that they or family members will be victims of terrorism; fewer than half the backers of all other candidates express this fear.
  • Sixty-eight percent of Trump’s supporters agree that “Society as a whole has become too soft and feminine.”  In this respect, his supporters reflect a more intense version of sentiments shared by Republicans as a whole, including 57% of Ted Cruz’s supporters and 52% of John Kasich’s.  By contrast, 67% of Democrats disagree.
  • Consistent with this critique of female influence, 50% of Trump’s supporters believe that society would be better off if men and women stuck to more traditional gender roles and tasks.
  • Sixty-four percent of Trump’s supporters say that “It bothers me when I come into contact with immigrants who speak little or no English,”  a sentiment rejected by 64% of Americans, including majorities of the backers of all the other presidential candidates.