Ideological Heterogeneity and the Rise of Donald Trump

Edward G. Carmines, Michael J. Ensley, Michael W. Wagner
  • The Forum, January 2016, De Gruyter
  • DOI: 10.1515/for-2016-0036

Donald Trump's Appeal to Populist Voters in the 2016 Presidential Primaries

What is it about?

Political scientists are struggling to determine how Donald Trump won the Republican nomination despite having little in common with Republican elites. We suggest Trump appealed to populist voters, an ideological bloc that has rarely found a major-party presidential candidate compatible with their preferences. In short, ideology played a big role in the nomination of such an unconventional candidate -- just not ideology in the traditional sense of "liberal" versus "conservative." Populist voters have liberal economic attitudes and conservative social attitudes. But neither the Republicans nor the Democrats are associated with this combination of beliefs. As a result, populists had not been a major factor in recent presidential elections. Donald Trump may have changed this. He recognized (intentionally or not) that in a crowded Republican primary field, he could out-flank his (16+) opponents by appealing to this smaller bloc of populist voters. Indeed, populists were a group custom-made to respond to Trump’s candidacy. We present evidence from the 2016 primary season that reveals populists were a far more important part of Donald Trump’s coalition than has been the case for Republican presidential candidates over the past half-century. This finding reflects an effect from populist ideology per se, not from racial resentment or partisanship.

Why is it important?

We offer an explanation of the rise of Donald Trump grounded in a new understanding of how (not whether) the mass public is ideological. A single liberal-conservative dimension is inadequate to understand mass ideology -- or to show that ideology motivates voters in the first place. And it is certainly inadequate for concluding that ideology played little role in any particular political outcome. When we introduce two issue dimensions (one economic, one cultural), we gain a deeper appreciation of five distinct ideological sub-types of voters: liberals, conservatives, populists, libertarians, and true moderates. As such, any discussion of Trump's success in the presidential primaries or general election must take into account the significance of his candidacy to voters with unorthodox - but coherent - sets of economic and cultural attitudes.

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The following have contributed to this page: Dr Edward G Carmines and Michael W Wagner