The Surprising Voters Driving Trump to Victory

After Republicans underperformed in the 2022 midterm elections, Donald Trump was a wounded animal. Trump-like candidates who parroted his claims about a stolen 2020 election went down to defeat. Meanwhile, Ron DeSantis—Trump’s main would-be rival for the nomination—won his own re-election race a thumping 19 points. DeSantis wasn’t alone in thinking Trump was beatable. Half a dozen others prepared bids of their own. For a brief moment, the post-Trump Republican future seemed at hand.

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That window of opportunity would close as quickly as it opened. And after Trump’s victory in the Iowa caucuses, commanding a majority of the vote against a divided opposition, it seems unlikely to reopen. This is all very different from the free-for-all expected when DeSantis, Nikki Haley, and others stepped into the fray against a weakened Trump.

What happened? Memories of the midterm elections—more an obsession of political operatives than a concern of actual voters—faded quickly. Trump regained his footing. His team credits a February 2023 visit to working class East Palestine, Ohio—after a train derailment spilled toxic chemicals into the community—for helping him get his mojo back. He began going on offense against his rivals, principally DeSantis, while they sat on the sidelines lest they be drawn into a one-on-one fight. Then came the indictments—and Republican voters closed ranks.

Bolstering Trump’s surge in the primary polls were Joe Biden’s weak numbers. In 2016 and 2020, Trump almost never led in general election polling—which underestimated his performance both times. In 2023, he began to regularly beat Biden in head-to-head matchups. More than anything, this defanged the core electability argument made by Trump’s Republican rivals. If even an indicted Trump could beat Biden, why try something new? Why not just stick with a proven original, one whose primal instincts match perfectly with the Republican electorate’s anti-establishment fervor?

Given voter frustration about rising prices, Trump’s lead in the general election polls is not so surprising. What is surprising is the demographic coalition that’s arguably made him the general election frontrunner, strengthening his hand in the primary. Mainstays of the Democratic coalition—Black, Latino, and young voters—appear to be leaving Biden’s party in droves. Trump wins voters aged 18-29 in a few polls, despite losing them by 24 points in 2020. He’s reaching 20 percent among Black voters, a polling level without precedent for any Republican nominee in the last 40 years. And he continues to build on the gains he made among Hispanics in 2020.

Read More: Why the Primary Calendar Is Stacked in Trump’s Favor

There’s a raging debate in polling-land about whether these numbers are to be believed. An outright Trump victory among young voters seems far-fetched, for instance. Nonetheless, I’m of the mind that these polls should be taken seriously, not literally, to borrow a phrase used to describe Trump’s appeal in 2016. They track with slow-motion trends already unfolding in the American electorate—a Latino zoom to the right in 2020 and a gradual erosion in Black voter support for Democrats. Underpinning these trends is a class role reversal from where the two parties stood in the 20th century, when Democrats were unambiguously the party of the poor and the working class across racial lines, and Republicans were most often identified with big business and the wealthy. Trump may have perfectly embodied this old Republican stereotype, but under his watch, the party now has more people in it on the bottom half of the economic ladder, without college diplomas. This is a net positive for the GOP’s ability to win elections in the future, given that more than 6 in 10 voters don’t have a college degree.

Trump upended the traditional party alignment in 2016 with a cultural appeal to white working class voters that simultaneously repulsed the denizens of America’s upper-income, college-educated suburbs. This continued in 2020, when Trump’s working class coalition was joined by millions of nonwhite voters, while Democrats continued to count more of the college educated in their ranks.

But after eight years of Trump, cultural topics feel played out a driver of voting behavior. Yes, they’ve polarized the electorate in new ways, with Republicans more competitive in the Rust Belt and Democrats in the Sun Belt. But what’s different in 2024 is an election playing out under an umbrella of economic anxiety. And that’s pushing more working class voters into Trump’s camp—especially nonwhite voters commonly aligned with the Democratic Party.

Compared to 2020, Trump is stronger and Biden weaker among voters making under $50,000 a year, non-college graduates, voters under 30, and racial and ethnic minorities. And the groups at the margins of today’s economy are the groups that inflation has hit the hardest. And though price hikes may have eased recently, what voters are thinking about most is the cumulative toll of inflation—20 percent in just three years.

The White House’s strategy seems to be to hope for good economic news to displace the bad, pivoting in the meantime to non-economic issues like abortion rights and democracy. In their view, that’s a tried-and-true formula that in 2022 saved a number of suburban districts that over-index for college graduates. The problem is that these issues are further down the priority list with diverse lower-income communities who wonder if they’ll have enough to cover next month’s bills. These tend to be the voters who show up in presidential—but not midterm elections—and their strong showing for Trump in recent polls is upending traditional ideas about who benefits from expanded turnout in lower-income and minority communities.

The larger concern for Biden is the perception that his leadership style is too small, too slow—and yes, too old. Stylistically, Biden is a poor fit for younger voters who initially flocked to the party when Barack Obama was its standard-bearer. Other voters simply want energy in the executive: action to tackle rising prices or fix the border. And the current version of Joe Biden doesn’t seem like a man of action—not in the way Trump does. In open-ended responses from voters, Biden’s age readily translated to the idea he is too weak to tackle the pressures of the presidency for four more years. The steadiness that was his strength in 2020 now reads as lethargy—and for all the noise and chaos of the Trump years, the economy seemed to be on more stable footing. For the voters at the bottom that need relief the most, that’s translating to an unexpected political shift.

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