Our favorite curmudgeon, political scientist Tom Ferguson, appeared on Real News Network to tease some signal out of the considerable noise on Donald Trump. Ferguson is best known a top expert in the US on money in politics, having meticulously built databases on political spending over decades. He also has a reputation for being rigorous in the interpretation of other types of election and polling information.
As surprising as it may seem now, he was also one of the first to develop what he calls the “investment theory” of politics, that election results going back to the New Deal and even earlier can be explained by looking at the alignments of powerful monied interests, and not the much more comforting stories about “popular will”.
ESSICA DESVARIEUX, PRODUCER, TRNN: Welcome to the Real News Network. I’m Jessica Desvarieux in Baltimore.
Donald Trump may have started as a joke to many on the left, but it appears that Republican voters are taking him seriously, with the billionaire polling strongly in early primary states like New Hampshire and Iowa. The latest Iowa poll has him ahead of the pack with 25 percent of the vote. These figures are after Trump called for monitoring of select mosques, bringing back waterboarding torture, and keeping Syrian refugees on a watch list. Also, Donald Trump supporters at a campaign rally in Birmingham, Alabama choked and beat a Black Lives Matter activist who was speaking out against Trump’s racist rhetoric. The man, Mercutio Southall, said he was called the n-word, while people were chanting all lives matter as they were beating him. Trump’s response to the attack was, quote, maybe he deserved to be roughed up.
None of this news has hurt Trump in the polls. Rather, he’s remained in the lead in all the New Hampshire polls. But who are these people showing up to Trump rallies and supporting the billionaire, and why are they supporting him to begin with? Here to help us answer these questions is our guest Thomas Ferguson. Thomas is a Professor Emeritus of political science at the University of Massachusetts in Boston. Thanks so much for joining us, Tom.
THOMAS FERGUSON: Hi, there.
DESVARIEUX: So Tom, I know you’ve done some research on this issue to see who is exactly supporting Trump. Will you please just break down the numbers and tell us what you found?
FERGUSON: Okay. Well, the first thing to be said is it’s tough to find very good numbers. And in some sense because they are all early polls, there maybe are no really good numbers. So a little bit like trying to find the thick parts of a cloud, if you like. But in fact, a lot of newspapers have just stopped printing when they do the polls the sort of subdivisions that people who analyze polls are used to, in particular [inaud.]. In the Washington Post it’s hard to find there. The New York Times should be doing more than it does in that.
But there are some really good polls, notably a McClatchy-Marist poll, that one can–that’s just beautifully presented. And there you can see very plainly and taken recently that Trump’s appeal is indeed to about twice that–lower income voters seem to like him about twice as much as the upper income voters who like him in the Republican poll. In other words, it’s really true. Now, I, a lot of folks jump to the conclusion that these are blue collar workers. I rather doubt it. I think what you’re probably finding here are what you might call lower middle class white collar workers, including people who probably, because it’s an income story, may just be living on social security and things like that. In other words, they may not be working at all. But for sure there’s a strong appeal to lower middle class voters. And this is a poll of Republican leaners, among independents, and self-proclaimed Republicans. You can be sure there are not very many African-Americans in there. So this is mostly lower middle class whites.
DESVARIEUX: Next question, Tom, is of course why. Have you found any indications from poll questions what is behind Trump’s success with this lower and middle class strata?
FERGUSON: I think the best you can do on that is try to match up what folks say are their issues with what, with their preferences. And that’s virtually impossible to do with these polls because they just don’t break them down that way. So we’re making here at best educated guesses. You can be sure that there’s an appeal on both race and immigration there, exactly as you suggested in your lead-in. But I would also add it’s very plain that Trump–I mean, almost everybody across the board in Republican polls generally thinks that Trump would be much better dealing with the economy than the other candidates.
And it’s pretty obvious that Trump is saying a lot of things, not just on race, but who else is going to tell you, for example, well of course politicians if you pay them will come to, if you invite them to your wedding. And I mean, he’s talking–I mean, he clearly has broken a lot of taboos on, say, money in politics. He’s even dumped on some issues that are virtually sacred to the Republicans, notably the carried interest tax deduction for the super rich.
There’s a lot going on in the Trump candidacy. It’s also obvious, you will forgive me for my sort of directness here, Trump is probably, the comparison with Silvio Berlusconi in Italy is sometimes made. I think that’s right. I mean, Trump is no Ross Perot. He’s kind of a funny looking if very able guy building a company. Trump is, to put it simply, typically surrounded by beautiful women, and generally walks around, you know, flying around in his own plane and things like that. For a chunk of folks in the United States that’s a kind of, I think, aspirational story. And that makes him different. It is also the case that, look, this guy ran a reality TV show that was a big hit for years and years. Rightly or wrongly, a lot of people out there think they know him. And so this is a huge advantage.
What’s interesting to me in this race is that the sorts of things he’s been saying, typically you’d, these candidates who start like that in American political campaigns typically get blotted out later in the campaign issue in big, multi-state primaries where you have to have a lot of money. And to put it bluntly, they get drowned in an enormous wave of money. This is probably not going to happen to Trump. That’s just impossible. I mean, this guy’s a billionaire. So you have here a loose cannon in terms of the American elite in many senses, including his willingness to dump on other parts of the elite. That’s plainly attracting people to him. And so–and I doubt he’s going away. On the other hand, I think we have to be a little careful when we say that he hasn’t really hurt himself by all these attacks. If you look, his negatives are going up among a lot of people, including other Republicans. So this guy may hit a ceiling just short of enough to win the race there. Or you know, he may break through. I [inaud.]. That’s kind of a tough call right now.
But this, this is, it’s an extraordinary situation. I don’t know of any really comparable case.
DESVARIEUX: Yeah, that’s something we’re going to certainly keep following here at the Real News, this rise of Trump and his appeal with this lower and middle class strata. Tom, thank you so much for joining us.
FERGUSON: Thanks. Have a good one, everybody. And thank you, Jessica. Bye-bye.
DESVARIEUX: And thank you for joining us on the Real News Network.