What are they thinking?

I have taken some time over the last several weeks to try to answer the question, “What are they thinking?” when it comes to people’s support for various Presidential candidates.  The answers are often surprising.  After having conversations with a couple hundred likely voters, I have some quick informal notes on trends among supporters of various candidates.  This analysis is result of an unscientific case selection, but observations come from a plethora of in-depth informal interviews and follow-up interviews.

Below, I discuss those candidates polling over 10% in surveys asking about their respective parties’ primary process.

Hillary Clinton

Clinton’s base can be divided into three identifiable segments: loyal partisan Democrats, neoliberals with a focus on expanding business positions, and symbolic representation voters.

The largest segment of Clinton’s support appears to come from mainstream Democrats.  These folks are most focused on continuing the Obama (and first Clinton) Presidency for another eight years.  Many of these folks are apolitical towards her policies, and they appear to be more focused on whether or not she can beat the Republicans.  When issues do come up, they are linked to a party’s position — specifically abortion and perceived Democratic influence on the Supreme Court.

The second largest segment (which is surprisingly large) are business folks.  These voters are often work for larger, multinational corporations what benefited from favorable trade policies under Bill Clinton and will likely prosper under the TPP negotiated (in part) by Hillary Clinton.  Although they are not fans of her proposed tax reforms, they point out ample loopholes in the tax code they expect to remain open.

Finally, part of Clinton’s base are voters seeking a female POTUS.  They assume that women’s position in society will be improved with Clinton in office.  When issues do emerge, they link back to the partisan divide on the Supreme Court and the Democratic platform of pro-LGBT and pro-choice positions.

Bernie Sanders

Sanders seems to have the most enthusiastic crowd of supporters.  Sanders’ campaign assembles two groups of voters: the idealist left and disenfranchised millennials.  On the one hand, there is a chunk of American voters who seem “left behind” as the Democratic party has shifted from the postwar left (democratic socialism lite) to a neoliberal stance.  These voters range from the quite complex politicos like Ted Kennedy to the blindly partisan hacks.  Ideology links this diverse array of sophistication on the political left behind Sanders — which may explain frustration expressed by many trying to work within the Sanders camp’s very loose national campaign structure.

Second, Sanders is one of two candidates who has tapped a strong populist strain in American politics.  Millennials disappointed by a meager marketplace are looking for someone to blame, and Sanders’ attacks on big, private institutions seems to resonate more than Trump’s attacks on beleaguered minority groups.  The intensity of these supporters will likely be tested in Iowa during the caucus.  As with any voters, questions remain: will fervor in day to day communications translate in the caucus halls and ballot box?

Donald Trump

People who support Donald Trump genuinely believe that he will make America great again.  Many of these folks believe that many groups of outsiders are ruining the American Dream, from illegal immigrants, immigrants (primarily from Mexico), ISIS, anyone connected to the Islamic faith, China, liberals, and Democrats.  They assume that Trump says what he means because he is the “only authentic” candidate on the Republican stage.

Most of Trump’s base appear to support right- and authoritarian policies to reinstate their ideals.  Although tighter immigration policies to creating a state religion may seemingly contradict “freedom,” to the Trump voter these policies are critical for restoring a rapidly deteriorating American Dream.

Many within Trump’s base are not sophisticated voters, but they are extremely skeptical of established political brands.  They value perceived conservatism (likely better defined as the Cheney-Rumsfield brand of neoconservatism prominent during the 2000s) before other values, but many of their beliefs are surprisingly populist or even center-left (including increased regulations on Chinese imports.)

Some of Trump’s base appear to be xenophobic, anti-minority, and racist.  In general, this appears to be a smaller segment than reported in the media and forwarded in social media.  Overall, the typical Trump voter is scared of another incompetent politician from soiling the American Dream instead of a racist demagogue.

Ted Cruz

Cruz’ support appears to center around the TEA Party, two elections later.  Most of these followers adhere to a hard-line, conservative platform that is non-negotiable.  Any deviation from this list of core beliefs is seen as a blend between heresy and treason.  If not framed as TEA Party stances, many of these beliefs would likely meet mainstream support (e.g., a balanced budget, reducing personal taxes, stopping government intrusion), while others are a bit overplayed compared to mainstream views (calls for mass deportation, gun ownership is “sacred”).

The media often mistakes Cruz’ support from evangelical Christians because of his faith.  After speaking with many pro-Cruz evangelical voters, it appears that Cruz performs well among the Born Again in the TEA Party — not the Born Again in general.  (That slice of the political pie seems to go to Carson.)

Instead, Cruz appears to draw support from an unapologetically conservative position, almost a direct descendant of Barry Goldwater’s century conservative position.  Cruz’ voters often see the federal government as critical threat against the American Dream.  Rather than the panicked fear many Trump supporters exhibit, Cruz’ crowd are highly suspicious of government.  Those who tracked the military exercises in Texas during Operation Jade Helm are resoundingly pro-Cruz.  Overall, the typical Cruz voter views themselves as a “pure” conservative and seek a pristine, non-liberal record.

Marco Rubio

The typical Rubio voter is an “establishment” Republican, or one that blends a mix of Reagan’s shining city on the hill with Bush’s compassionate conservatism.  They are often somewhat conservative, pro-business, and pro-life.  That said, Rubio’s crowd also seems more willing to compromise with Democrats than most of their counterparts.

The most surprisingly part of the Rubio base is how meek they are.  Enthusiastic Rubio supporters are surprisingly difficult to find; instead, they appear to be fulfill the “Silent” part of Nixon’s silent majority.  Many of Rubio’s crowds note that they are willing to shift to other center-right candidates like Kasich or Bush — whomever is most likely to defeat Trump or Cruz.  This trend became more poignant after a couple of polls suggested that Kasich led the establishment pack in New Hampshire.

Ben Carson

Carson’s declining base centers around two major groups: evangelical Christians and broad-strokes self-defined conservatives who are skeptical of Republicans.  Carson’s peaceful demeanor seems to be the largest draw.  Although his sleepy appearance may draw humorous critiques, the calm tone is strikingly different compared to those sharing a stage with Doctor Ben during the debates.

Evangelicals seem to be the most consistent supporter of Carson.  Many cite Carson’s social media messaging as proof that he is a “Christian man” and maintain similar moral values.  This trend is somewhat surprising, especially considering the presence of Huckabee — an evangelical minister — and Cruz’ ballyhooed TEA support.  The Carson voter is more of the evangelical brand who is likely to do mission work, rather than attend a box-church.

Carson’s supporters often take on the mantle of “conservative,” but these views are often not substantiated by hard-line values.  Abortion is a notable exception, and a staunch pro-life position links nearly all of Carson’s voters.

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