Donald Trump struggles to broaden his voter appeal

Listen to this article


Donald Trump caused a stir earlier in the presidential campaign by saying “I love the poorly educated”, in a comment that reflected his strong support from Republican voters with no more than a high-school education.

While Mr Trump remains the clear favourite to win the Republican primary in his home state of New York on April 19, an analysis of his loss in Wisconsin last week underscores how he is struggling to expand his support beyond less-educated and lower-income voters, a trend that would hurt his chances in November’s general election. 

According to an analysis of Wisconsin conducted for the Financial Times by the Economic Innovation Group, a Washington-based research group, Mr Trump won 21 out of the 25 counties with the lowest high-school attainment and 20 of the 25 counties with the lowest job growth between 2010 and 2013. Ted Cruz, the Texas senator, clinched the state, taking a greater share of counties with better educated and more prosperous voters. 

"If Mr Trump is hoping to broaden his appeal, he has to reach out to folks who go beyond these demographics and appeal to people who are not as angry about the economy and sceptical of its institutions,” said John Lettieri, co-founder of EIG. “He has not proven he is able to do that consistently, as these Wisconsin findings show.” 

The figures highlight the conundrum for Mr Trump who, despite being the GOP frontrunner, performs worst in potential matchups against Hillary Clinton, the favourite for the Democratic nomination. According to an average of polls compiled by Real Clear Politics, she would beat the New York businessman by 11 points but would only narrowly defeat Mr Cruz. Ohio governor John Kasich would beat her by 7 points, according to recent polls. 

The Republican establishment has started to rally around Mr Cruz as they believe Mr Trump would lose badly to Mrs Clinton because of his xenophobic and misogynous rhetoric. More important, they think he would do lasting damage to the party, which had been trying to appeal to a broader, more diverse swath of the electorate. 

In Wisconsin, Mr Cruz won nine of the 10 counties with the highest median household income, while Mr Trump won the ten counties with the lowest median income. A separate gauge that quantifies economic “distress” confirms that Mr Trump’s appeal remains strongest among less well-off voters. Wisconsin counties that voted for him on average showed double the level of economic distress as those that went for Mr Cruz. Wisconsin has lower levels of distress than many other states, which helps explain why Mr Trump struggled, as was the case in Utah where he was trounced by Mr Cruz. 

Roughly 8 per cent of Wisconsin lives in a distressed zip code, compared with 13 per cent in New York and 17 per cent in Ohio. In both Wisconsin and Ohio, counties that voted for Mr Trump had an average median income of around 86 per cent of the figure for the whole state. If the same pattern held in New York, Mr Trump would win 32 of the Empire State’s counties — including Queens and the Bronx — representing 37 per cent of the state’s population. According to the latest polls, Mr Trump has a 33-point lead over Mr Kasich, with Mr Cruz lagging behind in third place. 

The Wisconsin numbers confirm a broader pattern that has been seen in the 2016 race, as Mr Trump appeals in particular to white, working class voters who feel left out of the recovery that the US has seen in the past seven years. In Ohio, Mr Trump won all of the most distressed counties, while Mr Kasich, who claimed the state, won 21 of the 22 best-off counties. The EIG measures distress by metrics including the prevalence of adults with a high-school degree, vacancy rates, the percentage of people below the poverty line, and change in employment. 

The figures from Wisconsin and Ohio underscore the steep climb Mr Trump will face trying to appeal to independents and more affluent Republicans if he ends up winning the GOP nomination. While he has managed to make greater inroads among better-off Republicans in some areas — including winning nine of the counties with better-educated voters in Wisconsin — exit polls showed that Mr Cruz was gaining traction among less-well-educated voters in Wisconsin, suggesting he managed to appeal to parts of Mr Trump's core constituency. 

Mr Cruz also won across all income groups, including lower-income voters who have been a cornerstone of Mr Trump’s support. He won 15 of the 25 counties with the highest high school educational attainment rate in Wisconsin and tied another, according to EIG’s analysis, and in 16 of the 25 counties with the lowest levels of economic distress. 

Mr Trump’s loss in Wisconsin has increased the chances that he will fail to secure the 1,237 delegates needed to avoid a contested Republican convention in Cleveland. He is hoping for a strong result in New York, which awards 95 delegates, to deflect some of the negative attention surrounding his campaign in recent weeks.



White House Countdown: Sign up for our free daily US election email

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2017. All rights reserved. You may share using our article tools. Please don't copy articles from and redistribute by email or post to the web.