Who Are Trump’s Most Ardent Supporters?

by Ryan P. Burge, Eastern Illinois University

It will be impossible to know, with any level of specificity, the composition of the thousands of insurrectionists who scaled the steps of the United States Capitol, looted the offices of many members of the United States Congress, and tried to instigate a violent overthrow of a free and fair election in a 230 year old democracy. However, we can say what types of Americans would feel sympathetic to those who attempted a failed coup of the United States government on January 6, 2021.

The Cooperative Congressional Election Study surveyed 18,000 individuals in November of 2019. They asked a number of questions that can help us start to generate a picture of Donald Trump’s most ardent supporters and may help us understand what factors led to the violent and despicable acts that were perpetrated on the American public yesterday.

The CCES asked respondents to place several figures and groups on an ideological scale with “very liberal” on one end and “very conservative” on the other end.

Nearly 37% of Americans believe that Trump is at the far right end of the ideological spectrum and another 30% see him as “conservative.” Just 10% of Americans describe Trump as liberal, and 7.5% see him as middle of the road.

The general public is nearly evenly distributed on their own ideology, with the most popular option as “middle of the road.”

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While it’s impossible to test, it seems incredibly unlikely that someone who sees themself in the middle of the ideological spectrum would be the type to storm the Capitol building. It also stands to reason that insurrectionists would also see Trump and his agenda to be as extreme as their own.

Indeed, Donald Trump’s approval rating among the group that sees themselves and the President as “very conservative” was 97.5%. In total, there were 639 respondents who chose “very conservative” for themselves and for Trump and “strongly approved” of the President – that amounts to about 3.5% of the population.

What does this group look like religiously? The religious breakdown of Trump’s most fervent supporters looks vastly different than the country as a whole. Nearly half of this group identified with the evangelical tradition. That’s double the rate of the general population.

About one in five of this group affiliated with the Catholic Church and another 12% are mainline Protestants, figures in line with national averages. Just one in ten come from other religious traditions, including Mormons, Muslims, Buddhists, and Hindus. That’s a significant departure from the rest of America.

When it comes to church attendance, there are clear differences between the groups as well. While nearly a third of Americans say they never attend church, it’s just 18% of Trump’s strongest supporters. Just about a quarter of the United States goes to church once a week or more. However, it’s 46% of those who backed Trump the most in 2019. Clearly, Trump’s support is deeply intertwined with religious concerns and devotion to religion and to the 45th president are correlated.

However, as in all things in social science, it’s more complicated than that. Other factors beyond religion separate ardent Trump supporters from the rest of the American population. For instance, just over half of those who support the President so strongly indicate that their highest level of education is a high school diploma or less (52.1%). That level of education is significantly lower than the education of the general population where just 37.7% completed no more than high school. Additionally, Trump supporters are just half as likely to have a four year college degree compared to the general population (16.3% versus 30.4%).

What’s worth pointing out though, is that from a financial standpoint, Trump’s most loyal fans are just as likely to make $50,000 per year as the rest of the United States population (45.7% vs 44.5%). Thus, this doesn’t seem to be driven primarily by economic insecurity.

Donald Trump, first and foremost, is a showman who loves to reward his supporters who have shown unshakable devotion to him over the last four years. His gift to these people is that he gave them what they wanted – a policy agenda that continued to shift to the right as each year passed of his administration. And in return, the most loyal portion of Trump’s constituency returned the favor by doing exactly what he asked them to do: storm the United States Capitol building to delay the counting of the electoral college votes – the first time this has happened in the modern era, or so much worse.

Ryan P. Burge teaches political science at Eastern Illinois University in Charleston, Illinois. He can be contacted via Twitter or his personal website. Syntax for this post can be found here

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