Our Survey Finds Populism Is Four Times as Prevalent Among Trump’s Supporters as Biden’s
Both sides criticize national elites, but Trump supporters blame them for ‘intentionally’ letting undocumented immigrants enter
Donald Trump’s unlikely rise to the office of the presidency in 2016 was widely seen as a populist phenomenon. Now, almost eight years later, Trump has won the Iowa Republican caucuses in a landslide. The real possibility of his return to the White House while facing an array of criminal indictments makes it important to understand the nature and extent of the populist sentiments helping propel him again to power.
With this in mind, the Institute for the Study of Modern Authoritarianism, the nonprofit parent organization of The UnPopulist, fielded a survey to measure populist attitudes among Americans. The poll of 1,000 respondents was administered nationwide from Nov. 17 to 27, 2023, as a supplement to the weekly America’s Political Pulse survey produced by the Dartmouth-based Polarization Research Lab.
In this initial, exploratory survey, we incorporated insights from the academic literature on populism to construct a strict model under which respondents needed to hold all three of the populist attitudes we tested to qualify as populists. We found that while only a minority of Americans displayed all of these attitudes, a majority—almost four times as many—were Trump supporters, as opposed to Joe Biden supporters, with full-blown populists comprising about 10.3% of Trump’s support and about 2.5% of Biden’s. Both sets of populists had unusually high levels of affective political polarization.
Among our other salient findings were:
Majorities of not just Trump supporters but also Biden supporters were skeptical of federal government elites, both elected officials and the unelected officials in the bureaucracy. This feeling extended to respondents beyond those we classified as populists.
Pluralities of both Trump supporters and Biden supporters agreed with allowing their preferred candidate, faced with partisan divisiveness in government, to bypass checks on presidential power and to decide when to “ignore the law and when to follow the law to achieve justice.”
Trump supporters saw themselves as primarily loyal not to Trump personally, but rather to his policy agenda.
Trump supporters, compared with Biden supporters, were much more likely to personally identify with Trump’s goals and feel that he strongly identified with them—views consistent with a populist dynamic.
Majorities of Trump populists said they were Protestant or Catholic, described themselves as born again, regarded religion as very important in their lives, and held conservative views on several hot-button cultural issues surveyed, such as transgender athletes.
Trump populists also exhibited much lower levels of general trust in others than Biden supporters, other Trump supporters and Americans as the whole.
More encouragingly, we found that despite all the political strife over Muslim travel bans, sanctuary cities, red-state busing of immigrants, and surges of immigrants at the southern border, most Americans did not express anti-immigrant attitudes, including Trump supporters, though they were two to three times as likely as Biden supporters to do so. A large majority of Trump supporters expressed concern over the failure of political leaders to control undocumented immigration, which they saw as intentional. This cynicism may be based, for some respondents, on the frustration over the long-term persistence of the issue and may reflect the influence of the “Great Replacement Theory,” which has gained traction on media outlets like Fox News and Newsmax in recent years. In contrast, only a small minority of Biden supporters expressed a belief that the failure to control undocumented immigration was intentional.
Elites, Agendas, and Leaders Outside the Law
The survey focused on a key component of a populist movement: the movement’s members, as opposed to its leaders or to populist party platforms. Drawing on summaries of academic research, we tested for three characteristic attitudes a populist movement’s members, namely, that they: 1) feel an unusually direct connection with a populist leader or with his or her agenda, experiencing a sense that this leader understands them and will defend their interests; 2) see themselves as oppressed, harmed or ignored by powerful elites, often government elites, who act against their interests; and 3) because of the populist leader’s stance against the threats they sense, support the leader’s efforts to override institutional checks on the state’s power to achieve the movement’s goals.
We worked to maintain the politically neutrality of this description, identifying populism with threats to the checks and balances characteristic of liberal democracy, but not specifically with the political left or right. This allowed us to use the same questions to test populism in politically opposed groups—in this case, supporters of Donald Trump and supporters of President Joe Biden.
We also tentatively tested a fourth and final attitude frequently described in the academic literature: that populist supporters frequently perceive themselves as losing wealth, status or influence to groups favored or unchecked by the elites—perhaps immigrants or others who are not, like members of the populist movement themselves, seen as “real” or “true” members of the nation. We thus asked a short series of questions about immigration, with Trump supporters specifically in mind.
As mentioned above, one striking finding that emerged directly from our questions about populist attitudes was the widespread cynicism toward “America’s political elites among its national elected officials” and “America’s bureaucratic elites among the unelected officials in the federal government.” In both cases, we asked whether these elites “have often harmed the interests of Americans like me in pursuit of their own special interests.” Despite this blunt, harsh description of the elites, only 4% of Americans disagreed or strongly disagreed in the case of national political elites, and just 7% disagreed or strongly disagreed in the case of federal bureaucratic elites. Instead, large majorities of 74% and 69% agreed or strongly agreed with the claim against political elites and bureaucratic elites, respectively. In both cases, the respondents’ most frequent answer was “strongly agree.”
There were partisan differences on these questions, but they weren’t dramatic—more a matter of degree than of kind. Trump supporters’ most common response was to “strongly agree” on both political and bureaucratic elites (51% and 49%, respectively), while Biden supporters’ most common response was to simply “agree” (43% and 37%, respectively). Still, large majorities of both groups agreed or strongly agreed with the two statements: 82% and 79% of Trump’s supporters on political and bureaucratic elites, respectively, and 73% and 66% of Biden’s.
Similar results emerged with Republicans, Democrats and independents. That said, the partisan differences we focus on here will involve Trump and Biden supporters, as opposed to political parties, since populist leaders are key to populist movements. Indeed, the first question in our survey asked whom respondents would vote for if the 2024 election were held the next day. Thirty-nine percent (39%) said Joe Biden; 37% said Donald Trump; and 24% said they were unsure, wouldn’t vote or would vote for someone else.
We then asked Biden and Trump supporters their primary reason for backing their candidate and how much they felt he understood and would fight for them. Interestingly, just 5% of Trump supporters said their primary reason for voting for him was feeling a personal connection with him: far more—54%— said their primary reason was supporting his policy agenda. Separately, 26% of Trump supporters also strongly agreed, “He’s the only recent candidate who understands people like me.” Likewise, 41% strongly agreed, “He’s the only recent candidate who will actually fight for people like me.” In contrast, lower percentages of Biden supporters—just 2%, 25%, 16% and 21%, respectively—said the same.
These figures suggest that compared to Biden supporters, Trump supporters were more likely to personally identify with their candidate’s cause and feel that he, in turn, strongly identified with them—views in keeping with a populist dynamic. These results also suggest that contrary to some characterizations, Trump voters see themselves as primarily loyal not to Trump personally, but rather to the agenda he says he’s striving for.
When asked, “Do you think your wallet (or your valuables) would be returned to you if it were found by a stranger?,” just 16.5% of Trump populists said yes—less than half the percentage of all Americans who said the same (34.0%).
A final notable finding that emerged directly from the questions themselves was the degree to which Trump and Biden supporters said they “would trust” their preferred candidate “as president to decide when to follow the law and when to ignore it to achieve justice.” To better test how Trump and Biden supporters would actually feel about their candidates’ violating the law in a real-world setting, we used the respondent’s preferred party, Republican or Democratic, to preface the question with a customized general statement: “Some people have expressed concern that federal government law enforcement agencies like the Department of Justice and the IRS have been used by [the party opposing the respondent’s preferred party] to target leaders and supporters of the [respondent’s preferred party] while protecting [the opposing party’s] own.”
Asked then about trusting their candidate “to decide when to follow the law and when to ignore it,” pluralities of Biden voters and Trump voters said they would trust them, with a slightly higher percentage of Biden voters than Trump voters agreeing or strongly agreeing (47% and 43%, respectively). Another 31% and 37%, respectively, said they neither agreed nor disagreed, meaning that just 22% and 20% of Biden and Trump supporters, respectively, disagreed or strongly disagreed with their candidate’s deciding when to ignore the law.
While the stated goal of ignoring the law was “to achieve justice,” the level of agreement with this bald statement about violating the law was surprising. Some may have read the idea of trusting their candidate “to decide when to follow the law and when to ignore it” to suggest a judicious approach to hard decisions, rather than a capricious, self-interested one.
Other respondents may have read the question as a comparison between the trust they would place in their own candidate and his opponent—a reading that would increase how much they agreed. Still, this seems unlikely. When the respondent saw the question, it was in straightforward language about their own candidate only, and it did not mention the opposing presidential candidate at all. Hence it seems more plausible that the allusion to justice, together with the preamble suggesting the respondent’s political opponents might be engaging in politically weaponized justice, explains why so many Biden and Trump supporters were willing to let their own candidate work outside the law.
Trump and Biden Populists
We drew on the responses to the questions above and an additional question about presidential abuses of executive orders to determine the numbers of Trump and Biden supporters exhibiting signs of populist attitudes and a populist relationship with their preferred president. In most cases, given the passion characteristic of a populist dynamic, we took only strong agreement with the various feelings we tested as suggestive of populist views. In questions about their president’s overstepping the law, however, we took both strong and simple agreement as consistent with populism.
It should be added that exhibiting a single attitude that appears consistent with populism does not make someone a “populist.” Under our model, populism involves a series of attitudes and dynamics that include supporting a violation of the strictures of liberal democracy. People can identify with a leader or criticize national elites for thoughtful and defensible reasons, without approving that leader’s violating legal constraints on executive power. In searching for populists, then, we are interested in a combination of views that, taken together, could prove problematic.
Ultimately, we did not find that large numbers of Americans shared the full series of populist attitudes we tested for. The “populists” expressing all three attitudes represented about 10.3% of Trump supporters and 2.5% of Biden supporters, making the estimated number of Trump populists nearly four times the number of Biden populists.
This figure for Trump’s populist supporters might seem low, given the strong loyalty and enthusiasm many Trump voters express. That said, this sort of political popularity is not necessarily populism; our stricter approach to testing for populists required more than this. Political loyalty and enthusiasm would correspond more closely with the first populist dynamic we tested, which was exhibited in our survey by 21% of Trump supporters and 7% of Biden supporters.
And while our figures for populists may indeed be low—this was an initial, exploratory survey—the results seem directionally correct in finding a much higher incidence of populists in the Trump camp than in the Biden camp. The emergence of Trump as a power in Republican politics is the primary reason that concerns about “populism” have reverberated in American discourse over the past seven years. Biden, in contrast, was favored as a Democratic Party presidential nominee precisely because he was seen a unifier and a consensus candidate, not a polarizer.
Moreover, Trump’s and Biden’s populist supporters exhibit strikingly high levels of affective political polarization based on a measure of partisan attitudes employed by the Polarization Research Lab. Trump and Biden populists’ average affective polarization was more than 40% higher than other Trump and Biden supporters, a direction of difference that was statistically significant at a 95% confidence level.* This finding occurred against a backdrop in which Americans’ affective polarization is generally high and widely distributed, usually varying little by political party, gender, education, race and income. In other words, while Americans’ affective polarization is typically high, the affective polarization of the populists we found was even higher. This unusual degree of polarization also seems consistent with populism.
The Populist Exception on Immigration
The results from our question on immigration similarly suggest our findings on populists are on the right track. If there is widespread anti-immigrant feeling in America today, it was not evident in responses to this question (see the table below). Just 22% of Americans agreed that immigrants take jobs from American workers; 18%, that immigrants weaken the American economy, reducing our wealth; and 17%, that immigrants reject core American values. Only 8% chose all three, and 50% disagreed with not just these statements, but an additional statement, discussed below, about politicians and undocumented immigrants. There were partisan differences—nearly a third of Trump supporters agreed with each of the three statements, but they were different thirds for each, and only 14% of Trump supporters agreed with all three negative views about immigrants.
The area of greater skepticism and partisan difference arose with the statement, “Our political leaders in Washington, D.C., have intentionally failed to reduce undocumented immigration because they want more immigrants to enter the country.” Here, 36% agreed, though this was dominated by Trump supporters, 67% of whom agreed, compared to just 9% of Biden supporters. The disparity here is interesting: The idea that the high level of undocumented immigration is intentional is one component of the “Great Replacement Theory,” which sees mass immigration as a plot to “replace” or outnumber native-born Americans with the foreign-born. This view has been popularized by former Fox News host Tucker Carlson and other Fox commentators, and Trump supporters’ responses in the survey suggest the idea may be gaining traction.
That said, even this disapproval among Trump supporters may not be “anti-immigrant” per se. The question deals specifically with undocumented immigrants, not immigrants in general. It also asks about the failures of political leaders in Washington, D.C.—a group that 82% of Trump supporters had earlier agreed were self-interested and harmful to people like them.
Regardless, Trump populists stand in contrast to everyone, including other Trump supporters. Around 50% of Trump populists agreed with each of the three negative statements about immigrants, and they were more than twice as likely as all Trump supporters to choose all three negative statements (31% vs. 14%). Most tellingly, nearly all of them—a remarkable 94%—agreed that the failure of America’s political leaders in Washington, D.C., to curb undocumented immigration was intentional. Their immigration views appear consistent with a fourth populist attitude mentioned earlier: a perception of losing wealth, status or influence to groups unchecked by the elites—in this case, immigrants, who, 50% of Trump populists said, “reject core American values” and thus may not represent “real” or “true” members of the nation.
Granted, the views of Trump populists are not completely surprising; most said they supported Trump’s policy agenda. But we chose these populists based on their general views about their candidate, their feelings about government elites, and their tolerance for violating constraints on executive power, not their specific views on issues. The extent to which they differ from other Americans and even other Trump supporters on immigration suggests that the populists we’ve found are indeed distinct, while remaining consistent with what might be expected for populist supporters of Donald Trump.
Other consistencies with what might be expected appear in the Trump populists’ responses in the America’s Political Pulse survey, where they expressed generally conservative views on such cultural hot-button issues guns, abortion, defunding the police and (particularly) transgender athletes, and where 69% said they were Protestant or Roman Catholic; 66% said religion was very important in their lives; and 53% said they were born again.
Perhaps the Trump populists’ most notable difference from other Americans, however, lay in an area that might not be immediately obvious: The APP survey’s measure of general trust. When asked, “Do you think your wallet (or your valuables) would be returned to you if it were found by a stranger?,” just 16.5% of Trump populists said yes—less than half the percentage of all Americans who said the same (34.0%). The Trump populists’ level of trust was lower than that of other Trump supporters and of any major subgroup we reviewed, whether by gender, age, race, income or political party. It was also distinct from the trust level of Biden supporters and Biden populists, 40.5% and 47.8% of whom, respectively, said yes to the same question—significantly more than all Americans.
Indeed, Biden populists presented a stark contrast with Trump populists on immigration too: Only a small minority endorsed any of the three negative statements about immigrants; none chose all three; none thought that U.S. political leaders’ failure to curb undocumented immigration was intentional; and a 72% majority chose none of the above. Biden populists may share Trump populists’ generic populist sentiments and high affective polarization, but key differences remain.
Populist Power and Its Enablers
These differences are one area we plan to explore in future research. We also plan to examine:
attitudes toward other elites, such as business and cultural elites;
what may be motivating the current skepticism of government elites, particularly among Biden supporters, given that critiques of the “administrative state” and “deep state” exist more on the right than the left;
what nuances might exist in Trump and Biden supporters’ tolerance for their candidate’s violating constraints on presidential power— namely, whether they see its exercise as a quasi-legitimate “cheat code” to defeating their political opponents or overcoming Congressional gridlock;
how much Trump and Biden supporters would support their candidate’s weakening of political parties, the media and other mediating institutions in the American political process;
whether there is a societal “outgroup” that would more clearly fit the fourth populist attitude discussed earlier: a group that is perceived as unchecked or favored by the elites, but not ultimately viewed as “real” or “true” Americans.
That said, two important observations remain on the findings from the current survey.
First, it might be tempting to conclude that if Trump and Biden populists are small parts of each leader’s coalition, populism actually poses little threat. This view, however, doesn’t square with a full consideration of the evidence, even if our estimates are low, as we concede they may be.**
Consider the Trump populists, the larger of the two populist groups. If Trump perseveres in the agenda most of these populists say they support, they seem likely to remain a key part of his coalition. Indeed, given this, and given the reported—and politically unsurprising—desire of Trump and his political allies to staff any upcoming Trump presidential administration with people more ideologically committed to his cause and more comfortable with an energetic use of executive power than those who staffed it in 2016, Trump populists may make up a disproportionate percentage of his thousands of political appointments to the executive branch. They thus seem likely to have more impact and influence than their numbers might suggest.
Among Trump populists, 69% said they were Protestant or Roman Catholic; 66% said religion was very important in their lives; and 53% said they were born again.
Second, these populists are only one part of a populist movement, and they would hardly be the only component of any political victories Donald Trump might achieve as president. Earlier, we noted that simply holding one of the three populist attitudes studied here does not render someone a populist. This does not mean that those whom we haven’t formally classified as populists under our strict definition would not help advance Trump’s populist agenda.
Some Trump supporters who do not feel a particularly special attachment to him or his cause nevertheless display populist attitudes toward federal government elites and toward questionable use of executive power; others also hold populist attitudes toward questionable use of executive power while expressing a strong attachment to Trump or his cause, though not particularly strong feelings against elites. Together, our full-blown populists and these partial populists represent 32% of Trump supporters—a sizable coalition motivated by a clear blend of populist sentiments (the corresponding Biden coalition would be 19.5%). Even more broadly, a populist president will likely achieve more of his or her goals in office amid an electorate that is cynical about the political elites who could serve as checks on executive power and that often tolerates executives who might flout the law to achieve their ends.
In the end, populist sentiment must be addressed with an understanding of its aims, views and concerns. This survey by the Institute for the Study of Modern Authoritarianism, projected to be the first in a series, is meant to become a valuable tool in accomplishing that important task.
*A brief modification was made to this sentence to better describe the technical finding.
**The original text mistakenly said “even if our estimates aren’t low.” This has been corrected.
The survey’s topline results, as well as those for Trump and Biden supporters, can be viewed on the website of the Institute for the Study of Modern Authoritarianism.
© The UnPopulist 2024