Trump supporters rallied in Detroit after the election. (ABC News: Emily Clark)
It was supposed to be the ‘coronavirus election’. But voting patterns tell a different story
Trump supporters rallied in Detroit after the election. (ABC News: Emily Clark)
They are a powerful voting bloc, but the thing that holds many Donald Trump “super supporters” together is the man himself. So, what happens now?
When you first look at a crowd of Donald Trump supporters, it’s a blur of red, white and blue, camouflage and cargo pants.
But when you move away from the rallies and talk to the individuals, it’s hard to define exactly who the Trump voter is, or was.
More than 71 million people cast a ballot for him this month. Among them were people who said they were voting for “the businessman”, the “non-interventionist” and the “pro-life” and “America First” candidate.
If you’re wondering how Americans can not only vote for Trump, but rally and protest for him, cover their homes in signs that bear his name and wear denim jackets with “TRUMP” spelt out in diamantes, it’s got a lot to do with how he makes them feel.
Some Trump voters will tell you they find the way he speaks, his “I’m not a politician” schtick, even his failings comforting. It reminds them of themselves.
Others will tell you they actually hate his personality, question his morality and want to “staple his mouth shut”, but they do place themselves on his side of the aisle.
To try to understand why President Donald Trump happened, you have to listen to the people who made it so.
And when you do, the next question is: What happens to them now?
The answer may be something both major parties will have to reckon with.
The Trump voter is no one thing
Among those millions of votes cast for the Republican ticket, experts said there were some that would have always gone to the GOP candidate and others that were specifically for Trump.
Trump supporters at a post-election rally in Detroit. (ABC News: Emily Clark)
Despite cold conditions, Trump supporters turned out (ABC News: Emily Clark)
Wolfgang at the Erie polling location. (ABC News: Emily Clark)
A woman with a mask at a polling station. (ABC News: Emily Clark)
Junior, a Trump supporter from Florida. (ABC News: Emily Clark)
Trump supporters in the crowd in Florida. (ABC News: Emily Clark)
“It’s a pretty diverse group in terms of the issues they care about and why they voted for him,” Emily Elkins, director of polling and research fellow at the Cato Group, said.
“A lot of people talk about Trump voters like they’re a downtrodden coal miner from West Virginia.
“That’s true for some of them. Some of them are well-educated, with a high income, living in a gated community — lawyers and doctors who want low spending and low taxes and they vote Republican.”
Michele Lofgren hopes voters across the political spectrum can move away from voting for or against the person. (ABC News: Emily Clark)
Michele Lofgren has been to one Trump rally. It was during the 2016 campaign when she was curious about what the TV personality was promising.
Trump wasn’t her first choice — she backed Ted Cruz in the primaries — but she had voted Republican in every presidential election since she was 21 years old and when that November rolled around, she did so again.
And again this year.
Lofgren has five children, all of whom have been home schooled at some point in their education.
She lives on a country road, in a rural town in western Pennsylvania, is a Christian and says the dominant decision-making factor when it comes to her vote is whether or not the candidate is against abortion access.
“I am against abortion. I do believe other conservative ideas. I believe a family should have the right to choose where and how their children are educated,” Lofgren said.
Michele Lofgren has home schooled all of her five children at some time. (ABC News: Emily Clark)
For Lofgren, it was never wholly about Trump. It was about the same values she has always based her vote on.
There have been down-ballot races in which Lofgren has not voted Republican because the candidate supported abortion access.
She has always believed in small government, the right of Americans to “determine their own lives” and economic policies that do not increase taxes.
The strongest word she had to describe how she felt about the Republican defeat was “disappointed”.
“I would say disappointed is probably my biggest feeling because it will affect our family and the things that we believe are important,” she said.
“You want your side to win.
“You want what you believe to prevail.”
Trump ‘super supporters’
So, just how many American voters would go Republican anyway and how many are attached to the man himself?
Political scientist at the University of Nebraska John Hibbing estimated the split was about 50-50.
Hibbing has studied Trump voters and recently published a book titled The Securitarian Personality: What Really Motivates Trump’s Base and Why It Matters for the Post-Trump Era.
From his surveys of American voters, Hibbing estimated about 29 per cent fell into a category he labelled Donald Trump “super supporters”.
A spectator at a Trump campaign event. (ABC News: Emily Clark)
These are his most diehard supporters.
Trump supporters have been known to drive past Democrat events. (ABC News: Emily Clark)
They’re the kind of supporters who show up at Democratic events just to antagonise the other side.
T-shirts and hats are filled with slogans. (ABC News: Emily Clark)
This is the kind of Trump voter whose image often travels across the world.
Elkins published research after the 2016 election analysing the different types of Trump voters and what they believe and is looking at how his base changed this year.
“If you think about the people who truly believe — where he really connected with their soul — they seemed to stick around for him,” she said.
She estimated the very loyal Trump supporter to be 51 per cent of the Republican base, and about 20-25 per cent of the total vote.
Towards the end of the campaign, at a rally in central Florida, supporter Bob Kunst told the ABC: “This is not a Republican crowd, this is a Trump crowd”.
He sat to the side of the event with a sign that said “boycott China”. He also said he was a registered Democrat.
That fits with the psychology of this kind of Trump supporter, according to Hibbing.
“They feel him in their bones.
“Once they have made that determination that this guy, Donald Trump, is going to do whatever he can to protect them and allow them to protect themselves and to stand up for America … then that attachment is incredibly intense.”
Even if he was derided by the world, there was a lot Trump could say and do without losing the loyalty of this group.
But there were some lines he could not cross.
“I don’t think he could change his positions on immigration and defence and gun control and all these things that really revolve around people’s perceptions of their own security and the security of core America,” he said.
Much of what Trump did and tweeted in the name of protecting the idea of “core America” was condemned as racist.
Building the Mexican border wall, banning immigration and refugee intakes from several Arab countries, posting tweets telling progressive Congresswomen to go back to the
“broken and crime infested places from which they came” — are just some of the divisive actions of the 45th President.
Biden promises to lead for everyone, but some believe not even Republicans can numb the feelings Trump’s presidency gave some Americans permission to feel.
“They’ve never been able to express themselves in the open, or at least they’ve been somewhat reluctant to do that, and they haven’t had a politician that really speaks to them in that way, that hits them where they feel it,” Hibbing said.
A rally crowd in Florida. (ABC News: Emily Clark)
Congressman for the Pennsylvania 16th District, Republican and long-time backer of Trump Mike Kelly told the ABC, the party had “changed dramatically”.
“The party before Trump is different after Trump,” he said.
“He’s ignited a whole new group of people who call themselves a Republican because that’s how the President is labelled. So I think they will continue to be Trump Republicans.”
Like many Republicans, Kelly does not believe the election is over — something that is enabled by the Trump legacy of misinformation while also helping to cement it.
“I think Trump supporters will continue to be Trump supporters and they will continue to believe the President is the duly elected president,” he said.
“It’s nowhere near being done.
“I think we should play this one all the way to the whistle.”
Kelly did say that when and if the Republican Party accepted a loss, he believed Trump supporters would too.
‘No matter what happens’
One day before the election was called by major networks and Biden gave his acceptance speech, Trump supporters gathered in Detroit, Michigan to, as they said, “stop the steal”.
This crowd was a mixed bunch. Lots of women, some “Latinos for Trump” and a few militia guys at the back. Considering Detroit is a black city, the crowd was very white.
As different speakers took to the mic, there was an ever so slight, but discernible, shift in language.
Conservative activist and self-appointed spokesperson for “former liberals” Brandon Straka was there.
Brandon Straka is a self-appointed spokesperson for “former liberals” (ABC News: Emily Clark)
Some of his lines included: “no matter what happens”.
And “the fire burns in all of us and it’s never going away”.
And “they can never undo what has been done over the past four years”.
To be clear, the people there came to win and were showing no signs of accepting a Biden victory, but there was some suggestion at least a few had thought about life after President Trump.
Another young man grabbed a megaphone and yelled to the crowd: “Never again will the Republican party be allowed to operate like a country club for America’s elite without a f**king army pushing back on them.”
Bob Biddle was in the crowd for Trump, not the GOP.
He is retired now, but worked as a pipefitter for American chemical company Dupont. He was a Democrat when he was younger, but says he’s become more conservative as he’s aged.
He drove five hours to be at Friday’s event, but he was at home among this crowd.
“The other politicians, truthfully, I don’t feel like I have anything in common with them, but with him I do,” he said.
Gesturing to the crowd, he says: “You couldn’t have got this with George Bush, Romney, none of them could do this.”
“This is his party.”
Bob Biddle doesn’t think there is a Republican who can lead like Trump can. (ABC News: Emily Clark)
On Sunday, Biddle was refusing to accept Biden had won and said even if Trump was no longer president, he would still support his man.
“I’m going to tell you … when we went to his rally, I said ‘I love you’ and I meant that wholeheartedly.”
And when it comes to another Republican becoming the leader of this group, he said: “In my opinion we don’t have anybody to take it up.”
Congressman Kelly said given the number of votes for Trump, there was “no mandate” for the Republican Party to move away from its “America First” approach.
“I think the President reignited the idea or the belief of America being America first and that’s not going to change.
“The loss we had in the White House was a dramatic loss for us, but the gains we made in the House were significant,” he said.
“I think the vast majority of people who voted for a Republican president this year will continue to look at his values and his policies and let that define what the Republican Party should be,” he said.
‘There’s nothing Biden can do’
Lofgren said she hoped a new leader would at least mean her party could win back the Republicans who voted Democrat just to get rid of Trump.
“I’m disappointed. I am also a Christian, so I also believe that ultimately God’s in control of everything that happens and who is put into office and so I know that God has a reason for it,” she said.
As someone who is very diligent in researching candidates’ policies, she hopes voters across the political spectrum can move away from voting for or against the person.
“You’re focusing too much on the person, not on our nation as a whole and I think that can be dangerous either way because it’ll make you make decisions that aren’t necessarily the best thought out, they’re more driven by emotion,” Lofgren said.
In his acceptance speech, Biden said he would govern for all, but Hibbing said he will not be able to bring the Trump “super supporters” along.
“I think Joe Biden means well [when he says] he’s going to be the president for all Americans, but I don’t think that group of fire-breathing base of Donald Trump is reachable in any way,” he said.
“There’s nothing Biden can do.”
For many voters in 2020, Trump is the Republican Party. (ABC News: Emily Clark)
There are also signs the GOP is having to appease its newest faction.
Establishment figures are out there aligning themselves with the President’s legal fight and unfounded claims of voter fraud.
On Monday, Mitch McConnell repeated the “any illegal ballots must not be counted” line in the US Senate, a move some pundits said was pure politics designed to keep the pro-Trump part of the Republican base happy.
And on Tuesday, the New York Times reported Trump is planning to form his own political action committee — or PAC — to directly raise money and potentially “retain his hold over the Republican Party when he is out of office”.
It raises the question of a Trump run in 2024.
“I think there could be an appetite for that among some of his core sets of supporters because he’s connected with them on that next level of emotion,” Elkins said.
She said it was likely Trump would “continue to connect with these voters through some kind of platform, whether it’s Twitter or something else”.
“Having core supporters isn’t enough. In the process of keeping those core supporters, it’s possible he pushes away those broader members … that are not enamoured with his style,” Elkins said.
The 2020 election saw lifelong Republicans vote Democrat, the largest turnout in the history of American elections and a rare defeat of an incumbent president.
There is no denying it was emotional for tens of millions of people. Trump made Americans, and even those watching from abroad, feel something.
The fierce emotion that put him in the White House in the first place was seemingly matched by the visceral desire to see him gone.
But what’s left now is a country of two halves and a Republican Party divided further still.
What happens to Trump’s most loyal supporters depends on what happens to him and, most importantly, what he says.
And as the past four years have shown, that can be just about anything he feels like.