The enduring appeal of Donald Trump to Republican voters has confounded the Republican establishment. Yet Trump understands Republican voters far better than the GOP elite does, in part because he recognizes where established leaders are out of touch with base voters.
In 2014, the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, an independent, nonpartisan think tank, conducted a unique pair of surveys: one of average Americans and the other of foreign policy opinion leaders from government, think tanks, media organizations, academia and other interest groups. These surveys — which pre-date Trump’s candidacy but help us understand it — show that there are large divisions between the attitudes of self-described Republican opinion leaders and average Republicans on immigration, refugees, trade and jobs.
Trump’s rhetoric on immigration — warnings about Mexican immigrants as criminals and “rapists” and that Syrian refugees could be a “Trojan horse” — were controversial to many. But they channeled the concerns of many Republican voters, if not most Republican elites.
The Chicago Council Survey results showed that Republicans among the general public were about 40 percentage points more likely than Republican leaders to think that large numbers of immigrants and refugees coming into the United States posed a critical threat to the country (55 percent of GOP voters vs. 16 percent of Republican leaders) and that controlling and reducing illegal immigration is a very important U.S. foreign policy goal (61 percent of GOP voters vs. 20 percent of GOP leaders). When asked whether the United States should accept Syrian refugees, the Republican public was far less supportive than Republican leaders (27 percent vs. 71 percent).
“Protecting the jobs of American workers” has been a top priority for the U.S. public ever since the Chicago Council began its polling in 1974. Trump gets this. In his announcement speech, Trump declared that he “will be the greatest jobs president that God ever created.” Again, Republican opinion leaders are not in sync with average Republicans on this issue. In 2014, 76 percent of Republicans in the public said protecting jobs was a very important goal — yet only 37 percent of Republican opinion leaders agreed.
Trump also gets where a segment of the Republican base is on trade and globalization in a way that GOP leaders do not. Although roughly 9 in 10 GOP opinion leaders supported free-trade agreements in general, including both the Trans-Pacific Partnership and the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership agreements, roughly a third of the GOP public consistently opposed them. This same pattern prevails in views of globalization. Almost all leaders (98 percent) said globalization was “mostly good,” but only 62 percent of the public did.
And finally, there are notable differences on Social Security. Trump has said, “It is my absolute intention to leave Social Security as it is.” Roughly equal numbers of both Republican leaders and the Republican public (39 percent and 42 percent, respectively) wanted to maintain current levels of Social Security spending. But the most common position among Republican leaders was to cut back Social Security spending (50 percent in favor), a stance with little support among the Republican public (10 percent in favor). Conversely, 42 percent of Republicans wanted to expand that spending — a position only 9 percent of Republican leaders endorsed.
Trump has presented himself as an outsider who represents the views of disaffected Republicans who think their leaders are out of touch. While Trump is exploiting these divisions, he didn’t create them. If he loses, either in the primary or in the general election, these differences will remain for the next contest.
Dina Smeltz is a senior fellow on public opinion and foreign policy and Craig Kafura is a research associate at the Chicago Council on Global Affairs. They also manage the council’s polling and data blog, Running Numbers.