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Our Survey Finds Populism Is Four Times as Prevalent Among Trump’s Supporters as Biden’s

Both sides criticize national elites, but Trump supporters blame them for ‘intentionally’ letting undocumented immigrants enter

Donald Trump’s unlikely rise to the office of the presidency in 2016 was widely seen as a populist phenomenon. Now, almost eight years later, Trump has won the Iowa Republican caucuses in a landslide. The real possibility of his return to the White House while facing an array of criminal indictments makes it important to understand the nature and extent of the populist sentiments helping propel him again to power.

With this in mind, the Institute for the Study of Modern Authoritarianism, the nonprofit parent organization of The UnPopulist, fielded a survey to measure populist attitudes among Americans. The poll of 1,000 respondents was administered nationwide from Nov. 17 to 27, 2023, as a supplement to the weekly America’s Political Pulse survey produced by the Dartmouth-based Polarization Research Lab.

In this initial, exploratory survey, we incorporated insights from the academic literature on populism to construct a strict model under which respondents needed to hold all three of the populist attitudes we tested to qualify as populists. We found that while only a minority of Americans displayed all of these attitudes, a majority—almost four times as many—were Trump supporters, as opposed to Joe Biden supporters, with full-blown populists comprising about 10.3% of Trump’s support and about 2.5% of Biden’s. Both sets of populists had unusually high levels of affective political polarization.

Among our other salient findings were:

  • Majorities of not just Trump supporters but also Biden supporters were skeptical of federal government elites, both elected officials and the unelected officials in the bureaucracy. This feeling extended to respondents beyond those we classified as populists.

  • Pluralities of both Trump supporters and Biden supporters agreed with allowing their preferred candidate, faced with partisan divisiveness in government, to bypass checks on presidential power and to decide when to “ignore the law and when to follow the law to achieve justice.”

  • Trump supporters saw themselves as primarily loyal not to Trump personally, but rather to his policy agenda.

  • Trump supporters, compared with Biden supporters, were much more likely to personally identify with Trump’s goals and feel that he strongly identified with them—views consistent with a populist dynamic.

  • Majorities of Trump populists said they were Protestant or Catholic, described themselves as born again, regarded religion as very important in their lives, and held conservative views on several hot-button cultural issues surveyed, such as transgender athletes.

  • Trump populists also exhibited much lower levels of general trust in others than Biden supporters, other Trump supporters and Americans as the whole.

More encouragingly, we found that despite all the political strife over Muslim travel bans, sanctuary cities, red-state busing of immigrants, and surges of immigrants at the southern border, most Americans did not express anti-immigrant attitudes, including Trump supporters, though they were two to three times as likely as Biden supporters to do so. A large majority of Trump supporters expressed concern over the failure of political leaders to control undocumented immigration, which they saw as intentional. This cynicism may be based, for some respondents, on the frustration over the long-term persistence of the issue and may reflect the influence of the “Great Replacement Theory,” which has gained traction on media outlets like Fox News and Newsmax in recent years. In contrast, only a small minority of Biden supporters expressed a belief that the failure to control undocumented immigration was intentional.


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