Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump speaks at a campaign rally last month in Mesa, Ariz. (Ross D. Franklin/AP)

Commentators have argued for months that Donald Trump’s presidential campaign has the potential to unite white Americans’ ethnic and economic anxieties into a powerful populist coalition.

For example, Lee Drutman noted that ethnically conservative and economically progressive populists who want increased spending on Social Security and a decrease in immigration vastly outnumber political conservatives and business Republicans. “So when Trump speaks out both against immigration and against fellow Republicans who want to cut Social Security,” Drutman wrote, “he’s speaking out for a lot of people.”

New data show just how successful Trump has been. The data come from the RAND Corp.’s Presidential Election Panel Survey (PEPS), a collaborative project between RAND and the political scientists John Sides, Lynn Vavreck and myself. In the first of six PEPS surveys, a nationally representative sample of more than 3,000 respondents was interviewed in late December and early January (more details here). The initial survey results were released Wednesday.

Particularly important in this survey is its detailed measurement of attitudes toward racial and ethnic groups, as well as economic liberalism.

The PEPS follows prior research and measures resentment toward African Americans and immigrants with statements like “blacks could be just as well off as whites if they only tried harder” and “it bothers me when I come in contact with immigrants who speak little or no English.” It also contains a measure of ethnocentrism developed by Donald Kinder and Cindy Kam, which compares how favorably respondents rated whites to how favorably they rated minority groups.

Finally, the PEPS included questions about taxes, the minimum wage, government health care, big business and labor unions — which together form a reliable measure of economic liberalism.

Most striking is how each of these measures strongly correlates with support for Trump. The graph below shows that Trump performs best among Americans who express more resentment toward African Americans and immigrants and who tend to evaluate whites more favorably than minority groups.


Graph by Michael Tesler

Moreover, statistical models show that each of these three attitudes about minorities contributes independently to Trump’s vote share.  So much so, in fact, that GOP primary voters who score in the top 25 percent of their party on all three measures are 44 points more likely to support Donald Trump than those who score in the bottom 25 percent.

On economic issues, Trump separates himself even more from his closest competitor in the PEPS survey, Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.).  The graph below shows that Cruz outperforms Trump by about 15 percentage points among the most economically conservative Republicans. But Cruz loses to Trump by over 30 points among the quarter of Republicans who hold progressive positions on health care, taxes, the minimum wage and unions.

Graph by Michael Tesler
Graph by Michael Tesler

It appears from the PEPS data, then, that the Trump coalition unites resentment of minority groups with support for economically progressive policies.

That is also the takeaway from a collection of 19 surveys that have been conducted by YouGov every week or every other week between June 13 and Jan. 19.  Each of those surveys asked its respondents to rate how important the issues of immigration and Social Security were to them.

The graph below shows that Trump’s support throughout the past several months has been particularly strong among Republicans who think that both immigration and Social Security are “very important.” GOP voters who prioritize both issues are now about 40 points more likely to support Trump than Republicans who did not prioritize either.

Graph by Michael Tesler
Graph by Michael Tesler

These findings dovetail with multiple public opinion polls showing that Trump performs best among anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim Republicans. Doug Ahler and David Broockman have also shown that Trump is particularly popular with Republicans who have conservative positions on immigration and liberal positions on taxes.

These findings also support the idea that Trump’s appeal mirrors Nixonian populism’s blend of racial conservatism with tacit support for the welfare state — a blend often seen in Europe’s right-wing populist parties as well as the presidential bid of George Wallace.

Of course, Trump does not always take liberal positions on economic issues.  He opposes raising the minimum wage and has proposed a massive tax cut on high incomes. Yet Trump has repeatedly bucked conservative orthodoxy on such issues as protecting Social Security and Medicare, campaign finance reform, governmental health insurance, infrastructure spending and free trade.

Nevertheless, economically progressive positions, combined with Trump’s harsh rhetoric about minority groups, seem to have created a powerful populist coalition that has made Trump the front-runner heading into the Iowa caucuses.

Michael Tesler is assistant professor of political science at UC Irvine, co-author of “Obama’s Race,” and author of the forthcoming, “Post-Racial or Most-Racial? Race and Politics in the Obama Era.”