Last spring, FiveThirtyEight commissioned a SurveyMonkey poll that aimed to glean the views of voters who cast their ballots for President Trump but did so unenthusiastically. We called them “reluctant” Trump voters; they were crucial in Trump’s victory, and we’ve been keeping tabs on this voter demographic over the year, including a new survey conducted Feb. 12-19.
Who are reluctant Trump voters? They make up about a fifth of the president’s 2016 coalition, and they are predominantly white — as are most of his supporters. But compared with other Trump voters, this reluctant group is slightly more likely to have a college education, call themselves politically moderate and identify as independent.
More than one year in, reluctant Trump voters are generally still happy that they voted for Trump. In the most recent survey, 57 percent of reluctant Trump voters said they had no regrets about their vote, though 28 percent said the jury was still out. For a comparison, 83 percent of all Trump voters said they had no regrets, while 11 percent said the jury was still out.
Most importantly, our latest survey shows that the president is making some inroads with these reluctant Trump voters, however gradual, and that the economy is a big reason why.
In April of last year, our survey found that only 14 percent of reluctant Trump voters strongly approved of the job the president was doing. In the latest iteration of the survey, that number had ticked up to 22 percent. This could be due in part to reluctant Trump voters’ views of the economy and their perceptions of Trump’s handling of it.
Last April, 87 percent of reluctant Trump voters approved of the way the president was handling the economy, with 29 percent “strongly” approving and 58 percent “somewhat” approving. Last month, two months after the passage of the Republican tax bill, 84 percent of reluctant Trump voters said they approved of the way the president was handling the economy, but there was a notable jump in the percentage who “strongly” approved — it was up to 40 percent from 29.
This is all obviously good news for Trump, but it also entails some risk. Our survey was conducted before Trump’s surprise announcement last week that he would impose tariffs on steel and aluminum imports, potentially setting off an international trade war. The move would fly in the face of Republican orthodoxy on free trade. It led Trump’s chief economic adviser, Gary Cohn, to announce his resignation, and it drew a rare public rebuke from House Speaker Paul Ryan. It’s unclear how imposing tariffs might affect reluctant Trump voters’ views on his handling of the economy, but if a trade war dampens economic growth, this is the part of the president’s coalition that could be most at risk of abandoning him.
For now, though, reluctant Trump voters are mostly with the president. You can see that in their view of special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation — reluctant Trump voters, like all other Trump voters, see coverage of the Mueller investigation as overblown. Seventy-eight percent of reluctant Trump voters said the media was paying too much attention to Trump’s relationship with Russia. More enthusiastic Trump supporters were more likely to feel that way (89 percent), but not that much more likely. (Only 18 percent of respondents who voted for Hillary Clinton felt the same.) Partisanship, it would seem, continues to rule the day on the country’s most contentious political matter.
And, looking forward a bit, reluctant Trump voters could be a pivotal group in determining the political fallout of whatever Mueller finds. We asked people how serious they would consider it if Mueller “determines President Trump obstructed justice by interfering with the investigation into his campaign’s contacts with Russian government officials.” While 73 percent of Americans think it would be a “very” or “somewhat” serious matter if the investigation finds that Trump obstructed justice, only 44 percent of Trump’s enthusiastic backers fell into those categories. Reluctant Trump voters were in the middle: 64 percent said an obstruction finding would be at least somewhat serious.