Meet Donald Trump’s Surprising Supporters

The GOP front-runner is winning delegates in the most Democratic parts of the country, foiling Ted Cruz in the process.

Donald Trump gives a thumbs up at the 2016 American Israel Public Affairs Committee Policy Conference.
March 29, 2016, 8 p.m.

The path to the Republican presidential nomination will be running through some of the most Democratic neighborhoods in the country—Harlem, the South Bronx, Berkeley, and South Central Los Angeles. It’s another odd quirk of the Republican primary process that some of the most liberal congressional districts in the country will play an outsize role in determining whether Donald Trump will be the GOP nominee or not.

In the vote-rich states of New York and California, each congressional district allocates three delegates apiece. That means that conservative districts in Staten Island (New York) and Orange County (California) carry as much importance as heavily-Democratic districts in New York City’s inner boroughs or the densely packed liberal neighborhoods in Los Angeles. Ten of New York’s 27 districts and 13 of California’s 53 districts have a Cook Political Report rating of D+20 or greater, and allocate 69 delegates in total. The success of Trump’s rivals in these districts will likely make or break Trump’s campaign.

Against the odds, Trump has won widespread support in some of the most liberal Democratic areas of the country. He carried 40 percent of Cook County’s Republican vote, which includes the city of Chicago and its inner suburbs, allowing him to take most of Illinois’s delegates. Trump won 41 percent of the GOP vote in Wayne County, which encompasses the city of Detroit. He won 36 percent of the GOP vote in the city of St. Louis, and carried Boston’s Suffolk County with 47 percent of Republicans.

What explains this dynamic? A major reason is that Trump’s (mainly white) supporters are disproportionately concentrated near areas with many minorities, suggesting that strained race relations may have played a role in their backing of Trump. He has won over white Republican voters in rural Southern counties where African-Americans make up a majority of the vote, and he has performed well in urban neighborhoods where the racial composition of surrounding areas has changed over the years. His victory in the city of St. Louis was probably boosted by the recent rioting in nearby Ferguson that polarized the region along racial lines.

Second, some of the urban congressional districts are gerrymandered in order to take a small slice of Republican suburban territory along with heavily Democratic urban turf. In Illinois, Democratic redistricters drew a small slice of suburban Will County into the Chicago district of Rep. Robin Kelly. Needless to say, the political views of these Republican voters are entirely different than their Democratic neighbors, and they proved sympathetic to Trump.  

Third, Trump’s front-runner status is a testament to the breadth of GOP support that he has received across the country. Trump has captured delegates from some of the wealthiest districts on the map, from the North Shore suburban Chicago district of Illinois Rep. Robert Dold to Rep. Mark Sanford’s tony seat in South Carolina’s Low Country. Many of those unlikely victories were a consequence of the crowded Republican field. Now the burden will be on Ohio Gov. John Kasich, the last establishment Republican in the race, to pick up delegates in affluent urban districts from Beverly Hills to Manhattan’s Upper East Side.

It’s the disproportionate influence of urban voters in the Republican nomination process that makes it difficult for Sen. Ted Cruz to make serious headway against Trump. Cruz, who famously criticized Trump for holding “New York values,” will soon need to reach out to those very New Yorkers to have a chance at picking up delegates in the Empire State. Trump is a natural fit for many New York City Republicans, who embraced former Mayor Rudy Giuliani’s strong leadership and overlooked his personal foibles, and see Trump in much the same light.

At the beginning of the election, it looked like blue-state Republicans would be the saving grace for the GOP establishment, countering the influence of the conservative grassroots. Mitt Romney dominated in the big cities throughout the 2012 GOP primary, winning easily in the same areas where Trump is showcasing strength.

But Trump has upended the conventional GOP playbook, winning over moderates and less-religious Republicans that usually side with the party’s mainstream. That’s allowed him to succeed in areas that, on paper, once looked like Trump dead zones. As the primary calendar turns to densely-populated states—New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Connecticut, and California—Trump will have the opportunity to lock down the GOP nomination in the most unlikely places.

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