How Ambivalent Trump Voters Feel About Him Now

AP Photo/Charles Rex Arbogast

A supporter of President Donald Trump raises his fist during a Republican campaign rally in Elkhart, Indiana.

Conventional wisdom depicts those Americans who cast their vote for Donald Trump as a zealous and rather unified group. In fact, a sizable subset of those voters, now that Trump has been in office for more than a year, say that they were conflicted in voting for him and express concern about key aspects of his presidency.

Can those voters be persuaded to move politics in a different direction in 2018 and 2020? What are their key issues, and how do they differ from the electorate at large?

To get at these basic questions, the Center for American Progress and Hart Research Associates designed a comprehensive national survey of 1,500 registered voters to measure public attitudes toward government in the Trump era. The survey was conducted in March of this year, and is a follow up to an extensive study on trust in government we conducted in 2015 and 2016.

Examining public confidence in the Trump administration, the study presented participants with 20 specific actions and decisions the president has made since taking office and asked voters whether each item gives them more confidence in the Trump administration, less confidence in the Trump administration, or whether it does not affect their confidence either way.  

On 19 of the 20 items presented—ranging from Trump’s ongoing attacks on the media and investigations into his 2016 campaign to recent tax and budget policies—voters overall report less confidence in the Trump administration rather than more confidence. 

To really see which of these actions and decisions matter most, both positively and negatively, we isolated the opinions of the 43 percent of Trump voters who reported “having mixed feelings about voting for Trump”—the voters most likely to break with the president as opposed to those who are either strongly for him or reflexively against him. As you can see in the table below, there is tremendous variation in reactions to the president’s actions among these conflicted Trump voters.  


Although voters overall report less confidence rather than more on nearly every action tested, Trump’s steps on immigration, the travel ban, trade, tariffs, the Supreme Court, taxes, and regulation produce large double-digit advantages in confidence among the subset of conflicted Trump voters. Progressive opponents of these divisive policies must continue to fight the Trump administration on these critical issues but should recognize that the president retains strong support for his economic and social nationalism agenda among his wavering base of 2016 voters.  

Less confidence starts to outpace more confidence among conflicted Trump voters on matters related to the turnover of people in his administration, the Wall Street connections of many of his advisers, and his proposed budget cuts to Medicaid and other social programs.

Things really start to go south for Trump among these conflicted voters on issues related to his personal behavior and possible illegal actions and corruption. By large double-digit negative margins, conflicted Trump voters express less confidence rather than more confidence on matters such as Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into Trump’s campaign’s possible involvement with Russian interference in the 2016 election; Trump businesses making millions because he is president; the appointment of his daughter and son-in-law to senior White House positions; and the $130,000 payment by his lawyer to Stormy Daniels. The two actions with the largest negative gap in confidence among these conflicted Trump voters involve the president’s use of Twitter to criticize opponents and the media, and the various emerging scandals among Cabinet members like Scott Pruitt, Ryan Zinke, and Ben Carson.

So, of the myriad violations of public norms, the rule of law, and sound public policy committed by the current administration, the consensus case against Trump—among all voters and among the people who voted for him reluctantly—boils down to a strong concern that he breaks rules and ignores standards set up to prevent abuses of power and corruption by public officials. 

The lesson from these findings for people who desire a different direction for the country is not to simply call out Trump as a national embarrassment and a corrupt tool of wealthy special interests, although voters undoubtedly believe both are true. Opposition candidates also need to prove to voters that they are personally and politically the polar opposite of Trump’s toxic profile—that they are decent, stable, and rational people who are not corrupted by money and who do not violate the rules and norms of our democracy.   

Will this have an effect in the voting booth? This study shows clear evidence that candidates who take specific steps to ensure their own integrity and accountability will be more appealing to voters than a status quo politician: 81 percent of voters say they are more likely to vote for a candidate who “discloses how they will personally benefit from all bills they vote on,” 79 percent of voters are more likely to support a candidate who “discloses all meetings with lobbyists or interest groups,” 73 percent are more likely to support a candidate who “refuses to accept contributions from lobbyists,” and 71 percent are more likely to back a candidate who “refuses to accept contributions from corporate PACs.”

But personal integrity alone will not ensure the long term rebuilding of public trust and confidence in government. Distrust of government runs deep and is primarily centered on the widely held perception that the government serves at the pleasure of the wealthy and powerful corporate interests. As a participant in one of our focus groups remarked, “Congress is essentially a bunch of millionaires doing the bidding of billionaires.” The path forward for those who want to fight Trump, improve public confidence in government, and restore the belief that government can help people and serve the common good is therefore clear: We must end the corrupt link between money, political leaders, and public policy outcomes.  Structural changes to campaign funding, lobbying, and policymaking are critical steps to help restore trust in government and to complement progressives' longstanding commitments on health care, education, and other social services.   

This combination of political and economic reform is what drove the original Progressive Era response to the corruption and insecurity of the Gilded Age, and can serve once again as a template for reform and sound governance in the era of Trump. 


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