What the early primaries tell us about Trump’s changing base

A graphic showing how among 100 Trump primary voters, 36 are 65 or older

A graphic showing how among 100 Trump primary voters, 52 identified as “very conservative”

A graphic showing how among 100 Trump primary voters, 46 are women

Voters 65 or older were the age group most likely to support Trump in Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina. They made up more than a third of his voters, increasing from a quarter eight years ago.

His voters are also much more conservative. Fifty-two percent of them identified as “very conservative,” a jump of more than 20 points since 2016.

But Republican women have stayed with Trump. They made up 46 percent of his base in the first three primary states, a slight increase over 2016.

White evangelical Christians also continued to flock to him, making up a majority of his supporters in Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina.

Finally, Trump’s support in the suburbs was also undiminished, at about 14 percent in the relatively rural early primary states.

The Washington Post analyzed exit polling from Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina and compared it to the same data from 2016 to get an idea of how Trump’s voters have shifted since his first presidential run. It paints a picture of a base that’s more homogenous than the one that backed him as the GOP nominee eight years ago. Trump’s increasingly extreme positions and rhetoric have clearly alienated more moderate voting blocs while attracting voters from the party’s right flank and allowing him to maintain support in other key groups.

While none of that has hindered Trump in the primaries — he won the first three by double digits — it could create liabilities for him in the general election. It could also speak to some advantages he has over President Biden. Here’s a look at how Trump’s base has changed.

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Trump’s base is older

Slope charts showing Trump voters by age

One of the most pronounced shifts is in the age of Trump’s base. Voters 65 and over made up a minority of his base in 2016. This year, they’re the largest group in terms of age.

Young Republicans have turned from him. Voters under 40 accounted for 37 percent of his base at this point in the 2016 campaign; now, they make up less than 29 percent. His share of middle-aged voters is also down, falling from nearly 40 percent to about 35 percent.

Older Americans vote at higher levels than other age groups, so Trump benefits by performing well with them. But he’ll struggle to defeat President Biden in November without peeling off some younger voters, who played an outsize role in Biden’s 2020 victory.

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Trump’s voters are really conservative

Slope charts showing Trump voters by ideology

Also apparent in primary exit polling is Trump’s reshaping of the Republican Party. As the GOP has lurched to the right, so has his base. More than 52 percent of his voters so far described themselves as “very conservative,” up from about 32 percent during his first run.

The share of his voters describing themselves as “somewhat conservative” fell from 46 percent to 38 percent. Less than 10 percent of Trump voters described themselves as “moderate,” down from more than 20 percent.

It’s unclear whether this trend will serve Trump in the general election. Nationwide, more Americans identify as conservative on social issues and economic issues than at any point since 2012, according to polling from Gallup last year. But Republicans accounted for the bulk of that shift, with independents moving only somewhat to the right.

There’s also evidence that swing voters are turned off by hard-right candidates, many of whom lost close contests in the 2022 midterms. Independents may be fed up with Biden, but they also may be wary of a GOP they view as too radical.

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Women have stuck with Trump

Slope charts showing Trump voters by gender

The overturning of Roe v. Wade and the ending of the constitutional right to an abortion has already cost the Republican Party. But in the early primaries, it doesn’t appear to have hurt Trump’s standing among Republican women, who made up a slightly larger share of his base than eight years ago.

He still performed far better among men, who accounted for 54 percent of his supporters in the first three states. But predictions about Republican women fleeing to other candidates after the Supreme Court’s landmark Dobbs decision haven’t borne out so far.

Outside the party, it’s a different story. Recent polling shows female registered voters support Biden by a more than 20-point margin, up from just two months ago. Trump will need more than just Republican women to close that gap.

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Evangelical Republicans have flocked to Trump

Slope charts showing Trump voters by religious group

By and large, White evangelical Christians liked Trump in 2016. But at the time many put their faith in Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.), whose religious bona fides were well known. Powered by those voters, Cruz managed to snatch the Iowa caucuses from Trump before fading in the polls.

This year, Trump has a lock on the Christian right. Evangelicals made up a majority of his base — almost 51 percent — up from about 48 percent during his first run.

Evangelicals tend to be more politically engaged than other groups, but they’re a relatively small portion of voters overall. So while their support helps Trump in the primaries, it won’t necessarily mean a windfall for him in the general.

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Suburban voters haven’t left Trump

Slope charts showing Trump voters by urban and rural areas

Trump’s support in the suburbs in Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina was the same as it was in 2016. But, of course, those states are relatively rural compared with the rest of the country, so his performance there may not be the strongest indicator for how he’ll fare in more densely populated states.

Still, suburbs are a key focus for both parties because they’re a critical battleground nationally. Biden beat Trump in the suburbs in the 2020 election, so Trump will be looking to make inroads there.

About this story

The South Carolina and New Hampshire exit polls results are from a survey of Republican primary voters as they exited randomly selected voting sites in South Carolina (2,126 voters on Feb. 24, 2024) and New Hampshire (2,129 voters on Jan. 23, 2024). Iowa results are from interviews of 1,628 caucus-goers as they entered randomly selected caucus locations across Iowa on Jan. 15, 2024. The polls were conducted by Edison Research for the National Election Pool (ABC, CBS, CNN, NBC), The Washington Post and other media organizations. Results were weighted to match vote tallies by region and to correct for differential participation by subgroup. Totals may not add to 100 percent because of rounding.

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