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Photo illustration by Rachel Gartz

What the GOP can learn from 1,000 Trump voters

A new poll finds common ground among people who voted for Mitt Romney and Barack Obama in 2012

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Utah Sen. Mitt Romney and former President Barack Obama were political rivals in 2012, but some of their supporters stood on common ground in 2020: They voted for Donald J. Trump.

In doing so, former supporters of Romney and Obama converged in a Venn diagram of shared ideology that is revealed in a new survey of 1,000 Trump voters. At its center is the belief that America is the greatest country in the world, but its founding principles are under attack.

The report says that these and other “cultural cues” united Trump voters, even when they supported ideologically distant candidates in the past. And it showed that Trump’s support comes from a more diverse population than commonly believed, said Henry Olsen, a senior fellow at the Ethics & Public Policy Center, a conservative think tank in Washington, D.C., which sponsored the poll.

“Trump voters are typically thought of as hardcore conservatives and evangelical Christians with a strong white, blue-collar vibe. These demographics are part of Trump’s support, but far from all of it,” Olsen wrote for The Washington Post.

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Charlie Neibergall, Associated Press

The findings could be valuable to the GOP as it regroups after losing the White House and its majority in the Senate, analysts said at a Feb. 5 roundtable discussion on the findings. Party leaders are divided about Trump, who remains popular among his base even as his second impeachment trial is under way.

In the poll, conducted by YouGov Jan. 11-14, more than three-quarters of the Trump voters said they would definitely or probably support Trump again if he runs for president in 2024. And two-thirds said they were more a supporter of Trump than the Republican Party. The survey had a margin of error of plus or minus 3.5%.

Here’s a look at what else the survey revealed about 1,000 Trump voters, and what analysts say the GOP should consider as they look to the future.

‘A branch and a bridge’

At the panel discussion on the findings organized by the American Enterprise Institute, Olsen noted that the vast majority of Trump supporters voted for other Republicans in the past. 

In fact, about 67% of the Trump voters in 2020 voted for Romney in 2012, even though the Utah senator and former Massachusetts governor has been one of Trump’s most vocal critics.

Twenty-nine percent had voted for Obama or third parties in 2012 and about 4% had not voted.

Not surprisingly, the Romney/Trump voters differed with Obama/Trump voters on some controversial social policies. Nearly 6 in 10 of Obama-Trump voter — or “party-switchers,” as Olsen called them — said the government should guarantee a minimum standard of living to people who work to the best of their ability. Just 36% of Romney-Trump voters said the same. And half of Obama-Trump voters identified as liberal or moderate in their views, compared to 16% of Romney-Trump voters.

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Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney and President Barack Obama shake hands after the third presidential debate at Lynn University on Monday, Oct. 22, 2012, in Boca Raton, Fla.

Win McNamee, Associated Press

But the two camps were surprisingly compatible on other issues. For example, a majority of both — 82% of Romney-Trump voters and 56% of Obama-Trump voters — agreed that the government does too many things that private businesses and charities could do better.

And even climate change, long seen as an immutable point of conflict between conservatives and liberals, appears to be a potentially unifying issue for the GOP, Olsen said.

“For all of the belief and the statements that the Trump coalition is full of climate deniers … two-thirds of Trump voters think that climate change is real and that something should be done about it,” he said.

“The very groups that Republicans tend not to do as well with — younger voters, college grads and females — take the more climate-realist as opposed to the climate-denialist position. This shows that a moderate approach to climate change is something that would unite the majority of Trump voters, while providing a branch and a bridge to get into the non-Trump majority of American voters.”

Another unexpected point of agreement between previous Obama and Romney voters who voted for Trump is their shared belief that abortion is wrong.

Seventy-eight percent of Trump voters are “broadly pro-life,” with even 64% of self-identified liberal or moderate voters saying abortion should be illegal except in cases of rape, incest or threats to the mother’s life. (The number rises to 90% for voters who identify as very conservative.)

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Liberal-moderate voters are significantly less likely (44%) to support overturning the Supreme Court’s Roe v. Wade decision legalizing abortion than those who describe themselves as very conservative (84%). However, opposition to abortion is “still a uniting issue,” Olsen said.

But the biggest unifier of former Romney and Obama voters is their belief that America’s culture and values are under assault.

A majority of both Obama-Trump voters (84%) and Romney-Trump voters (94%) said the United States is the greatest country in the world, and roughly the same number (89% and 90%) said Americans are losing faith in the ideas that make the country great.

Ninety-five percent of Romney-Trump voters said Christianity is under attack in the U.S., a position also held by 78% of Obama/Trump voters.

“The fear that America is being lost is a uniting issue,” Olsen said. “There’s no difference between party switchers and party loyalists on this.”

The road ahead

The survey was conducted the week after the deadly Capitol riot and the week before President Joe Biden was inaugurated, and a majority of respondents agreed with Trump’s contention that he had won the election. Seventy percent said Trump had won, 13% saying he had not, and 17% saying they were not sure.

An overwhelming majority — 92% — said that Trump’s presidency had been very good or somewhat good for the country; 6% said the presidency was somewhat bad and 2% said it was very bad.

Although the majority of respondents said they were more closely aligned with Trump than the Republican Party, 80% said they planned to vote in the Republican primary in 2022. Just 5% said they would vote in the Democratic primary and 15% said they would not vote.

These and other findings should inform the GOP as it plans for the midterm elections and considers a future that may or may not include candidate Trump, the panelists said.

Sean Trende, a visiting scholar at the institute and senior elections analyst for RealClearPolitics, said Republicans have to figure out what distinguishes the Trump voter who just happened to vote Republican from longtime Republicans who just happened to vote for Trump.

Then they have to bring back their longtime constituents who didn’t vote for Trump in 2020.

“Keeping those Republican voters who happened to vote for Trump in the coalition and maybe trying to bring back the Republican voters who didn’t vote for Trump is one of the crucial questions. How do you do that without alienating the Trump voter who just happened to vote Republican?” Trende said.

And it’s important for the GOP’s future success that it retain all the Trump voters, Olsen said.

“What you need to do if you’re a Republican leader is add to the Trump coalition rather than subtract,” he said. “If you think you’re going to attract new people ... and you’re willing to give up Obama-Trump voters in the exchange, you’re just shuffling deck chairs on the Titanic by replacing one kind of swing voter with another.”

He added, “It’s hard to see where we go with this coalition, but it’s even harder to see where we go without it.”