Whiny-ass sore-loser Donald Trump has a legit super power—both times he’s run, he’s turned out voters that haven't shown up for any other election, and didn’t even show up in the polls. Remember, polling was perfectly fine in 2018, and Democrats swept races in 2017, 2018, and 2019. They even won governorships in blood-red Kentucky and Louisiana!
Yet both 2016 and 2020 saw the emergence of a massive wave of white voters that polling totally missed. In fact, despite suffering some defections among suburban Republicans, Trump still managed to get 10 million more votes in 2020 than he did in 2016! So I came up with a theory: the Hidden Deplorables.
The outline goes like this:
The hidden deplorables aren’t Republican. They aren’t even conservative. They’re apolitical, otherwise ignoring politics, because their lives legitimately suck. They live in meth country, with dim job prospects (in fact, those two factors are highly correlated). Institutions have failed them—corporations abandoned them for cheaper labor overseas, government feels distant, and it’s certainly not improving their lives. Cities feel like walled gardens—unattainable, unaffordable, yet that’s where all the jobs are, the culture, the action. These deplorables have been left behind. So their attitude? “Fuck them all.”
In other words, these are people who have lost everything and simply want to burn everything to the ground. Trump didn’t offer hope for a better life, he promised to drag everyone down to their own sorry level. That’s why it didn’t even matter that Republicans failed to offer up a policy platform at their convention. No one needs to write “burn every norm, institution, and tradition to the ground” down in a platform. It was quite well understood.
While the theory will get tested in the January Senate runoffs in Georgia (Trump got 360,000 new votes in the state between 2016 and 2020, will they turn out again?), fact is it is just that—a theory. It’s my best explanation as to why these Trump voters only show up when Trump is on the ballot, and why pollsters are unable to capture them. If their life sucks so much that they hate everything, why would they pick up a phone and talk to a pollster? Why would they join a polling panel? Why would they answer a polling text? And given that they’ve only shown up for Trump, it’s nearly impossible to just model them in. (Some conservative pollsters tried to do it by simply adding a “shy Trump voter” number to their polling, it ended up being just a way to “unscrew” the polls. They were even more wrong in the final outcomes as everyone else. They actually thought Trump would win.)
Wednesday morning brought fresh new evidence of my theory, in a piece by conservative pollster Daniel Cox of the American Enterprise Institute.
Finally, research on the 2016 election by David Shor, a Democratic pollster, echoed what we found in our own pre-election 2020 survey: There was a large swing to Trump among white voters who had low levels of social trust — a group that researchers have found is also less likely to participate in telephone surveys.
In our pre-election survey on the strength of Americans’ social networks, we found that nearly one in five Americans (17 percent) reported having no one they were close with, marking a 9 percentage point increase from 2013.1 What’s more, we found that these socially disconnected voters were far more likely to view Trump positively and support his reelection than those with more robust personal networks. Biden was heavily favored by registered voters with larger social networks (53 percent to 37 percent), but it was Trump who had the edge among voters without any close social contacts (45 percent to 39 percent).
And this was especially true among white voters even after accounting for differences in income, education level, and racial attitudes. Sixty percent of white voters without anyone in their immediate social network favored Trump, compared to less than half (46 percent) of white voters with more robust social ties.
These are incels and Q followers and militia members and just assholes in general who repel people around them. In fact, as Republican as white people are, less than half of white people with strong social networks supported Trump! That’s why urban whites are so heavily Democratic—they are surrounded by community. That’s likely why suburban whites are turning blue as well, and particularly women, going to PTA meetings and their yoga or barre classes. It could also explain why suburban men, less likely to engage in such social endeavors, remain more Republican.
This theory really starts to explain a great deal, actually. Seniors are the age group most likely to be isolated, and they remain more heavily Republican. Rural areas are emptying out, with young residents moving to the big cities or other places with greater educational, recreational, and economic opportunities. Even the education gap that has emerged the last few cycles fits in—college is a community building experience.
There’s no doubt this is an over-simplification of complex political trends, but there's the nut of something fascinating here. It certainly explains why the internet, and Facebook in particular, have been such a boon to conspiracy theorists and the socially marginalized, and provided rocket fuel to their growth. These people are social failures yet human, thus desperate for social interaction and community. That makes them ripe for recruitment by QAnon, white supremacists, and all manners of deplorable groups.
To be clear, this doesn’t apply to all Republicans. A mega-church-going Republican who votes on abortion isn’t isolated, but that individual also has no problem answering a pollster’s questions. Same with a Wall Street “don't tax me” Republican. Those people are easy to find and count. But it certainly speaks to a real percentage of Republicans, and certainly explains the hidden deplorable quite well. Isolation isn’t an absolute. You can’t turn it on and off. It’s a scale, and it’s easy to see how the further on the isolation scale someone is, the less likely they are to properly interact with society and its institutions … that is, until a Trump emerges speaking to their pain and anger.
It certainly explains our own bewilderment that Trump got 10 million more votes than last time. Of course we don’t see these people. No one sees these people. That’s the point.
Funny thing is, these hidden deplorables don’t even trust Trump himself. He literally begged them to turn out and vote for Republican candidates for governor in Louisiana and Kentucky last year, and they didn’t listen. It’s not Trump the institution (as president and head of the Republican Party) that motivates them. It’s Trump the destroyer of norms, traditions, and liberals that motivates them to vote. So why would they vote for some Republican governor who might actually try to govern? They’re attracted to Trump’s specific brand of destructive chaos. That’s my hope for the future—that we’ve seen the last of them for a while (until the next right-wing populist emerges, which seems quite inevitable at this point).
Of course, past performance is no guarantee of future results, and as already noted, we’ll get to test this theory out in Georgia in January. But that just speaks to the hidden deplorables’ future voting habits. But as an explanation of who they are, and why they exist, this analysis by Cox is pretty solid supporting evidence.