On banning Muslims, building a wall, and deporting immigrants, a majority of likely Republican voters support Trump https://t.co/fS4HEF7mr1— NY Review of Books (@nybooks) June 2, 2016
Polling in February already showed that Trump would win a one-on-one contest against any other Republican candidate https://t.co/fS4HEEPLzt— NY Review of Books (@nybooks) June 2, 2016
One of the main reasons many political commentators were surprised by Donald Trump’s success in the primaries was his willingness to take extreme positions and use unusually harsh rhetoric in talking about immigration and related issues. Indeed, Trump’s comments about Mexican immigrants and Muslims have been at the center of his campaign. And his pronouncements on these topics have greatly concerned many Republican leaders and elected officials who feared they would harm the party’s image and damage its electoral prospects. But how did his positions and comments play with Republican primary voters?
The clear answer is that they reflected the views of likely Republican voters extremely well. We asked a series of questions about Trump’s controversial proposals (banning Muslims from entering the US, building a wall on the Mexican border, and identifying and deporting illegal immigrants). On all three issues overwhelming majorities of likely Republican voters supported his positions: almost three quarters (73 percent) favored banning Muslims from entering the US, 90 percent favored identifying and deporting illegal immigrants as quickly as possible, and 85 percent favored building a wall on the Mexican border.
Trump supporters were more in favor of these proposals than supporters of other candidates, but as Figure 3 shows, large majorities of likely Republican voters who did not support Trump for the nomination did support Trump’s positions on his three central issues. Almost two thirds favored his proposal to ban Muslims from entering the US and four fifths favored building the wall and identifying and deporting illegal immigrants. In fact 60 percent of non-Trump supporters took his position on all three of his distinctive issues.
As with electability, Trump’s positions on immigration, rather than limiting his appeal, actually gave him the potential to expand his electoral coalition.
Trump’s emergence on the political scene in the summer of 2015 was unprecedented. That someone with no office-holding experience and little previous involvement in the Republican Party could emerge as the GOP nominee seemed implausible. Media commentators, pundits, and academics continued to hold this position deep into the fall and winter, even at a time when national and state polls showed Trump to be a formidable candidate if not the inevitable nominee.
As our data here show, Donald Trump’s primary victories on his way to the nomination were not simply a result of a crowded field. Among our national sample of likely Republican primary voters, Trump was favored over every other Republican candidate in one-on-one matchups. Moreover, he was viewed as the most electable candidate by a majority of Republican primary voters, and on his distinctive issues involving immigration even those favoring other candidates overwhelmingly agreed with him.
Trump and his supporters were not in line with the opinions of a majority of Republican voters. As we showed in our earlier essay for Larry Sabato’s Crystal Ball,* Trump supporters were quite distinct from other Republicans on issues like raising the minimum wage and raising taxes on upper-income households. Almost two thirds of Trump supporters favored raising taxes on incomes over $250,000 compared with only 41 percent of other Republicans, and while almost half of his supporters (48 percent) favored raising the minimum wage, that was true of less than a third of those supporting other candidates.
It is not happenstance that these are two issues on which Trump has said he may change his positions in order to “clarify” them. Whether he can maintain these more populist positions on economic issues without turning off more conservative Republican voters remains a central question for his campaign.
But regardless of how successful he is in unifying the Republican Party behind his candidacy in the future, Donald Trump was already very close to being the inevitable nominee in January 2016.