Some may find support for Donald Trump hard to understand – but what unites his voters, many of whom live in regions of industrial decline, is the feeling they have something to lose
Many academics and commentators have puzzled over why Donald Trump is so popular despite his disregard for democratic norms. We have analysed the psychological traits of more than three million US citizens, and matched them with other factors such as demographics and economic situation. The analysis incorporates 18 distinct measures including birthweight, obesity, health, income and education, as well as the presence of traditional industries in their regions. The outcome showed a unique cocktail of factors contributed to Trump's support.
From a psychological perspective, people living in regions that voted for Trump in both elections have higher levels of neuroticism, a personality trait characterised by negative emotions such as anxiety, fear and anger. Those who have higher levels of neuroticism agree with statements such as “I see myself as someone who worries a lot” and as someone who feels “depressed, blue”. But circumstantial factors were also at play: people in poorer areas were more likely to vote for Trump, as were white voters and those prone to anti-Black racial bias.
Trump also improved his vote in 2020 in regions with poor health, where voters are traditionally Democrat
Trump voters generally live in areas where manufacturing and farming are in decline, and feel they have something to lose. Living in regions with low incomes, lower levels of internet access and less geographic mobility, they’re not part of the new tech economy for instance, and it may be that the threat of falling further that feeds their fear and anxiety.
Interestingly, the very poorest in the US still tended to vote Democrat: for Hilary Clinton in 2016 and Joe Biden in 2020. This includes people who have dropped out of high school and are on the breadline. Meanwhile, voters in wealthier areas of the country tended to back more traditional conservative candidates.
Another factor stood out in our analysis: a lack of college degree. Those who didn’t progress to higher education were more likely to vote Trump, in the primaries and in both elections.
The unique appeal of Trump
Trump succeeded in winning support in areas where previous Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney did not, back in 2012. He won over more people than Romney in regions where neuroticism was particularly high, and also where there was greater economic hardship and less ethnic diversity.
Analyses of the 2016 primaries revealed that this particular mix accounted for Trump’s appeal; there was little overlap among supporters of Trump and supporters of other Republican candidates such as John Kasich and Marco Rubio, who both won votes in areas that were better off. Like Trump, rivals Ted Cruz and Democrat Bernie Sanders won votes in more economically deprived regions during the primaries. But only Trump won votes in areas with high levels of neuroticism, economic deprivation and lack of ethnic diversity. From this analysis, we can’t say Trump supporters resemble typical right wing or populist left wing voters.
Trump voters... feel they have something to lose
The mix of characteristics that distinguishes Trump voters bears an uncanny similarity to the characteristics of those who supported the historical figure most associated with the rise of authoritarianism, Adolf Hitler. Both leaders won support among voters who have more to lose: the working poor who largely have jobs and aren’t at rock bottom. In the US, the poorest – who are more likely to be ethnic minorities – still vote mostly Democrat, and in interwar Germany, the poorest largely voted for the Communists.
As academics note, people who feel under threat – from demographic change, economic decline and who are prone to negative emotions – tend to favour authoritarian leaders.
Another presidential bid
What can politicians take from these findings? Interestingly, in the 2020 election, Trump gained in areas that are traditionally the preserve of Democrats, by winning over more ethnically diverse regions – although Democrats still won the largest share of the ethnic vote. Trump also improved his vote in 2020 in regions with poor health, where voters are traditionally Democrat.
This should raise a warning flag for Democrats to focus on areas such as education, health and wealth, especially in ethnically diverse areas as Trump embarks upon another presidential bid.
This article draws on findings from "Fear and Deprivation in Trump’s America: A Regional Analysis of Voting Behavior in the 2016 and 2020 U.S. Presidential Elections" by Sanaz Talaifar (Imperial College London), Michael Stuetzer (Ilmenau University of Technology), Peter J. Rentfrow (University of Cambridge), Jeff Potter (Atof) and Samuel D. Gosling (University of Texas).