The six Republican parties
As the GOP battle is joined, here are the different kinds of voters Trump, DeSantis, or someone else need in order to win
The Republican nominating contest is about to start in earnest with Ron DeSantis’s long-awaited entry into the race tonight. And while the polling shows Donald Trump to be a strong frontrunner, the most interesting uses of polling are not about calling races 9 months into the future. They’re about highlighting the various pathways various candidates have to rise or fall, about the ways the polling might change in the next nine months.
One thing to know about all the candidates not named Trump—even DeSantis—is that impressions of them may cover a large surface area, those impressions are not necessarily deep. That changes some with formal their entry into the presidential race, it will change a lot upon their appearance onstage at the first presidential debate in August, and we’ll see an exponential rise in voter attention and vote switching the night of the Iowa Caucus. Voter attention in primaries rises like a hockey stick, and we are still very early days.
Even for a candidate like DeSantis who made a good first impression on Republican voters with his war on woke in 2021 and 2022, knowledge is thin. The median amount of time consuming media about him can probably be measured in minutes—in sharp contrast to the deep and visceral feelings Republican voters have about Trump after his years in the political arena. DeSantis now has an opportunity for a reset by creating some solidity and depth behind those initial impressions.
If the race does ultimately boil down to Trump vs. DeSantis, the pivotal voters will be the most conservative ones in the GOP. In others words, don’t expect the party to become friendlier to suburban moderates, at least not until the general election starts in earnest.
At Echelon Insights, we’ve been polling a Trump vs. DeSantis head-to-head race at various points since 2021. And a basic segmentation of the party into very conservative, somewhat conservative, and moderate voters, reveals some interesting patterns. Recently, it’s been the very conservative, representing 35 to 40% of the party, voters who’ve swung most dramatically in Trump’s direction. They also swung strongly DeSantis’s following Trump’s midterm debacle. Their volatility in the race so far makes them a juicy target for both camps.
The nature of both the Trump and DeSantis coalitions have shifted pre-and-post midterm. Before the midterms, DeSantis had the strongest support in the middle of the party—somewhat conservative voters, representing about 35-40% of the electorate depending on the month. Trump had the strongest support on the flanks, among hardcore conservatives (35-40% of the party) and lower-information moderates (20-25%). Now, the race has shifted into something like a clearer ideological alignment, with very conservative voters siding overwhelmingly with Trump and the race still somewhat close with both moderates and somewhat conservatives. These two groups appear to now form a cohesive bloc, supporting Trump with narrow pluralities or majorities but still not completely sold on him. This is the traditional bloc that establishment candidates of yesteryear used to use. And despite his appeal to the MAGA base, DeSantis’s support is currently confined to these voters, one that the likes of Tim Scott and Nikki Haley are also eyeing closely. In contrast to more establishment-flavored candidates, DeSantis’s calling card was always his ability to also appeal to the hardcore conservative Trump base, where he still has the favorability and consideration numbers to mount a comeback.
Nationalist-populism is not a real thing. Trump’s base is one of voters who are very conservative across the board
For all the talk about Trump’s remaking of the Republican Party in a more populist direction—economically more to the center, skeptical of foreign intervention—there’s little evidence in our polling of these actually being the fault lines of Republican politics today. When we looked at this question a few weeks ago, questions on issues like Ukraine intervention and “woke capitalism” don’t neatly predict support for candidates. Trump has either so thoroughly succeeded in making these issues a hallmark of modern conservative thought, or issues like Ukraine and Social Security are tangential to his support in comparison to mainstays like immigration or crime. And when it comes to core support for Trump, as measured by favorability, there’s not a distinction between ideological “true believers” and MAGA, as we got dangled in front of us with Mike Pence’s mini-rollout as an undistilled Reagan “three legs of the stool” candidate. The most ideologically conservative voters are, in fact, the strongest supporters of Trump within the Republican Party:
Through January 6th and the midterms, very conservative Republicans were the most favorable towards Trump, though if you squint, you can see a bit of a downward trend. Somewhat conservatives oscillated some more, but with an ultimately flat trendline since January 2021. For moderate (and liberal) Republicans, the question of whether to like Trump at all is a more active one, and their chart is the most revealing: opponents of Trump surge into a plurality in single months following the midterms and January 6th, only to quickly revert back to the long-term trendline. And look how different the volatility on this chart looks like compared to the Trump-DeSantis head-to-head chart. There, very conservative voters appear the most swing-y. Here, it’s moderate Republicans.
But we can go beyond basic ideological categories to segment the Republican Party in more nuanced ways, and we did this in our most recent national survey. Asking a battery of 15 different “concern” items — on everything from wokeness in corporations to soft-on-crime prosecutors to the U.S. giving too much aid to Ukraine, we used machine learning to automatically sort Republican voters into different camps based on their answers to all these questions. This not just of ideological self-categorization, but a veritable map of how Republican voters think about all the hot-button issues before them.
Here are the six types of Republican voters we found:
The Ultra-Concerned (32% of the party): These voters were overwhelmingly likelier to say they were “extremely concerned” across all issues, only holding back slightly on U.S. aid to Ukraine, the weakest item in the battery overall. They are the most conservative voters, the oldest, and the most likely to consume conservative media. They currently split about 3-to-1 for Trump but are the strongest segment in their consideration of both Trump (86%) and DeSantis (69%). They are also considering an average of 3.1 Republican candidates, the second highest in the party overall. Their high consideration scores for both Trump and DeSantis make them a key battleground, apt to swing back and forth several times throughout the primary process.
Conservative Traditionalists (6% of the party): This group is very similar in its views as the Ultra-Concerned with one exception: they don’t buy Trump or Democratic narratives that cuts to Social Security and Medicare are a threat. You might think of them as traditional across-the-board conservatives (Hi, Mike Pence) who still push back on Democratic tactics like “Mediscare” that Trump more recently adopted. The smallness of the group, though, should tell you that this view is a tiny minority. Trump only leads a full primary ballot 45 to 29 in this group, and this small segment is considering the highest number of Republican candidates — 3.8 — including Trump at 78%, DeSantis at 68%, Vivek Ramaswamy at 48%, Nikki Haley at 34%, and Tim Scott at 28%. They are demographically similar to the Ultra-Concerned, with the exception of being overwhelmingly male (85%).
The Merely Very Concerned (20% of the party): A milder version of the Ultras, they are a step down in their levels of concern across virtually every issue—and the issue where they pull away from the most is on racial ideology/CRT. They are the most conservative group (92%), but mainly identify as somewhat conservative (51%). Trump and DeSantis post nearly identical consideration scores (69% and 65%) but Trump has a two-to-one lead on the ballot. Ramaswamy posts his highest ballot support in this group, at 8%.
The Anti-Woke (13% of the party): This group is the most clearly influenced by DeSantis’s governing agenda in Florida. They are higher in their concern levels for “woke” agenda items — testing “wokeness” in K-12 schools, corporations, and college campuses separately — than they are for any other issue, where they are a step down in concern levels from the Merely Very Concerned. They are outright unconcerned about “election integrity” and “the U.S. becoming too involved in Ukraine.” Ron DeSantis gets 45% to Donald Trump’s 13% on a full Republican ballot. In contrast the rest of the party, they are majority college-educated (61%), younger (61% under 50), and more nonwhite (31%). There’s a decent share of moderates in this group at 27% of the group overall. These are the kinds of Republicans you’re quite likely to encounter on Twitter, but they are still a niche group, at just 13% of the likely primary electorate overall.
MAGA Moderates (21% of the party): The flip side of the Anti-Woke, these are more ideologically flexible voters who are nonetheless receptive to Trump-specific messages. They don’t appear as engaged on most issues, but are notably above average relative to the rest of the party on aid to Ukraine and entitlement cuts, two hobbyhorses of the Trump influencers on Twitter. Trump wins on the ballot with 57% to 12% for DeSantis, and they are considering the lowest number of GOP candidates of all the groups (1.8), with Trump taking a bigger share of consideration than he does anywhere else. They are the least college-educated group (74% without degrees), 63% female, with more than their fair share of moderates (26%).
Borderline Republicans (9% of the party): These voters are the least connected to the party and relatively indifferent on concern items tested. And there’s a real question about whether they will ultimately vote in the primary at all. But nonetheless, they gravitate towards Trump as a default option, with 46% support to 12% for DeSantis and 10% each for Mike Pence and Nikki Haley. They are also considering a low number of candidates (1.9), predominantly without degrees (72%), the most moderate (33%), and the most female (65%).
What can we take away from all of this?
A majority of 58% of the primary electorate belongs to three groups—the Ultra-Concerned, Conservative Traditionalists, and The Merely Very Concerned—that reliably respond to themes echoed in conservative media across the board. Each group is actively considering an average of 3-4 GOP candidates and Trump and DeSantis are each being considered by at least 65% of each group. Vivek Ramaswamy is also being considered by more than 3 in 10 of these voters. This bloc of voter is reliably plugged in to conservative media, and if momentum in the primary race shifts, these voters will be the first to shift their support. We see this in Trump’s rapid bounce back among Very Conservative voters—who are most likely to belong to the Ultra-Concerned.
There is a significant minority of 30% of voters, making up the MAGA Moderates and Borderline Republicans—who are not very engaged, are considering the fewest candidates, and are the least college-educated in the party. Whether or not Trump is a good fit for them, they still default to him and rivals struggle to gain traction here. And this highlights the bifurcated nature of Trump’s core support—conservative true believers on one end and a significant number of less-engaged, non-college voters who likely haven’t taken much time to learn about any of the Trump alternatives. They won’t be as responsive to the daily vicissitudes of the news cycle, but once a clear frontrunner emerges, they’ll fall in line with the rest of the party.
Around a third of Republicans — the Anti-Woke and MAGA Moderates — seem to be uniquely influenced in their views by the brand of politics of one of the two main frontrunners. These voters select concerns voiced by one of the major candidates (wokeness in corporations for DeSantis, entitlement cuts for Trump) and deprioritize others. Among these groups, the Trump-oriented voters outnumber the DeSantis-oriented ones 21 to 13%. These are not the only voters, however, who respond to the messages being voiced by the frontrunners. The across-the-board conservative majority do also, and they are strongly tuned in to and enthusiastic about multiple candidates, even those not named Trump and DeSantis. It is that core conservative base that will ultimately decide this fight.
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