The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Why Trump’s plan to slash food stamps and Medicaid could cost him crucial support

A supporter of Donald Trump stands at a town hall event in Rochester, N.H., on Sept. 17, 2015, during the presidential campaign. (Darren McCollester/Getty Images)

Coming from any other Republican, the request for the federal budget that President Trump submitted to Congress last week would not have been a surprise. But because Trump campaigned on a populist economic platform and not a traditional conservative one, his budget flummoxed political operatives and observers in the media.

The president proposed major reductions in spending on food stamps, health insurance for the needy and other social programs that help support the poor, rural communities that gave him a win in November. His proposals would “inevitably reach many of the lower-income and less-educated whites that have emerged as the cornerstone of the modern Republican coalition,” Ronald Brownstein wrote in the Atlantic.

The budget might have a political logic to it from the White House's point of view. Experts say that even if the policies laid out in the document seem draconian, they probably will be popular among the bulk of Trump's supporters — even those who are quite poor.

The Trump administration dropped their budget for next year on May 23. Here are three of the biggest cuts it proposes. (Video: Jenny Starrs/The Washington Post, Photo: JIM BOURG/The Washington Post)

“I think the interpretation was, 'Well, the country wants Republican policies,' and it’s not a totally unreasonable interpretation of that election,” said Dan Cox, research director at the nonpartisan Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI), which conducts public-opinion surveys. “Republicans captured the House, the Senate and the presidency,” he said.

At the same time, Cox warned, the kinds of policies represented in Trump's first budget contain risks for Republicans. Although they might appeal to many voters committed to conservative principles, Trump will need to hold together a coalition beyond the GOP base if he wants his party to win again in 2018 and 2020.

“In many ways, this budget seems to cut against or contradict many of the key points of his campaign — that the government and powerful elites were not looking out for ordinary Americans,” said Jonathan Rothwell, an economist at Gallup. “This budget is playing much more into the hands of core conservatives, even hardcore conservatives, and not at all to the neglected, disconnected, independent voters, who really made his election possible.”

The right-wing base

Gallup's data on Trump's supporters who identify as Republican show they have consistent opinions on a number of issues associated with the conservative movement today. For instance, 73 percent of Republicans with favorable views of Trump agree that government is “doing too many things better left to businesses and individuals.” Sixty-eight percent support decreasing the level of immigration.

Republicans tend to be wealthier and more satisfied with their lives than other Americans. Asked to rate their overall well-being on a scale from zero to 10, only 20 percent of Republicans rated themselves at a 5 or below, and only 34 percent reported annual incomes below $48,000 a year. The respective figures for Democrats were 21 percent and 44 percent.

For committed Republicans, Trump's budget “is probably exactly what they voted for,” Rothwell said.

Even those Republicans who are less affluent may oppose the federal programs that Trump proposes retrenching, said Arlie Hochschild, a sociologist at the University of California at Berkeley who has conducted extensive interviews with working-class Republicans.

PRRI's polling shows that 66 percent of white working-class Trump supporters think that most people who receive welfare are taking advantage of the system. They were much more likely to agree with that statement than the white working class in general (54 percent) or Americans overall (44 percent).

Conservative Americans who have a hard time making ends meet but are not poor enough to receive food stamps, Medicaid or other public benefits might regard those who do as undeserving. Even those who do receive benefits may prefer not to think of themselves as the kind of people who would rely on public assistance.

For this group, supporting conservative candidates implies supporting politicians who would eliminate programs they rely on. Voting Republican can be a way to maintain a sense of personal status for the conservative poor, Hochschild said.

“They’re very mindful of any source of stigma,” she said, noting that accepting any benefits from the government is looked down on. “The stoical resistance to the need for them is a source of honor.”

The swing voters

Exit polls, however, suggest that only about 63 percent of Trump's supporters actually consider themselves Republicans. Besides a handful of Democrats, almost all the rest do not affiliate with either party, and these voters were crucial to Trump's success in decisive states.

In Michigan, for instance, independent voters who supported Trump made up 15 percent of the electorate, exit polls show. Trump won there by a margin of just 0.2 percentage points, so if his Democratic opponent in 2020 can win over even a handful of those independent voters, Trump will lose the state.

Already, polls suggest that some of these independent voters may be souring on Trump. In Gallup's polls, the share of independent respondents who approve of how Trump is doing his job has declined 11 points since he took office, to just 31 percent.

“He’s appealing to the majority of the people who supported him, but it’s a costly strategy,” said Gallup's Rothwell. “He needs those independents and moderates in order to be successful.”

Compared to those of the GOP base, the attitudes of the independent voters who supported Trump are more difficult to predict.

For instance, only 21 percent of independent respondents with favorable views of Trump said that the level of immigration should be decreased, according to Gallup. Only 28 percent said that government is doing too much that should be left to “businesses and individuals,” while 61 percent said the government should do more to help meet the nation's needs.

That last figure varies widely depending on how the question is phrased, but in general, Trump's independent supporters have much more progressive views on the purpose of government than his GOP supporters.

“I can’t imagine that too many of those independent voters would be supportive of this budget proposal once they learn about the cuts to health care, welfare, disability, education and training,” Rothwell said.

Rothwell also notes that independent voters report the greatest levels of disadvantage of any partisan group. Just over half — 53 percent — reported incomes below $48,000, and 29 percent put their well-being below a 5 on a scale of zero to 10, substantially more than the shares of either Republicans or Democrats.

In short, people who are worse off often feel less connected to the established political system. That fact is relevant for political strategists trying to predict whether the white working class will help Republicans win again in future elections. Although the group is disproportionately Republican, few of them have reliably conservative inclinations.

PRRI's polling shows that 51 percent of the white working class identifies as Republican. The figure for the general population is just 41 percent. Nonetheless, many in the white working class have progressive views on economic policy.

More than half — 53 percent — support increasing the minimum wage to $15 an hour, and 58 percent support increasing taxes on the wealthy. Sixty percent say that free-trade agreements are mostly harmful, and 70 percent say the economic system unfairly favors the rich.

“I hate politics with a passion myself, but at least it's saved me some money,” said one white working-class woman who participated in PRRI's research, explaining that without the insurance she was able to buy through the Affordable Care Act, also known as Obamacare, she would not be able to pay for medication for her diabetes.

“With Obamacare, at least I've been able to get some policies I can afford on unemployment and my savings account,” she said. “Now if Trump gets rid of it all, it's like — oh, God, I hate to imagine that.”

Trump's budget signals that he will take a more conservative approach to economic policymaking, said PRRI's Cox.

In particular, Cox noted that Trump's budget proposes reducing spending on disability payments by $72 billion over 10 years. Those programs are particularly important in places where the only work that is available requires employees to be in good physical health.

That does not imply that the budget itself will sway voters — especially because, with cable news concentrating on Trump's trip overseas and the continued investigation of whether his campaign had improper contacts with Russian spies, people who do not follow politics closely may not even be aware that Trump sent a budget to Congress this week. More moderate voters could defect, however, if Trump's proposal indicates the overall direction he is taking on the economy.

“It seems like he’s pretty comfortable just going along with the conventional Republican economic agenda, which I think is not something that a lot of his white, working-class supporters would necessarily be that excited about,” Cox said.