Donald Trump justifies his almost daily provocations by claiming he speaks for the “silent majority” – Americans who share his outrage about illegal immigration, but are afraid to speak up.
In speech after speech – including in cities with large Latino populations like Las Vegas and Phoenix – Trump counters protests with the assertion that the “silent majority is back” and on a path to “take the country back.”
His criticism of immigrants from Mexico has sparked anger across the country, and outrage in heavily Latino-enclaves like the piñata district in downtown Los Angeles – where piñatas in his image are a hot seller. He is likely to draw new protests as he heads to the U.S.-Mexico border Thursday to bring fresh attention to the issue.
But for all his talk of representing the “silent majority,” there’s little evidence to suggest that he’s galvanizing a cohort of people in the same fashion that Richard Nixon did after his famous “silent majority” speech in November 1969.
The real estate magnate is maintaining his lead among Republicans in national polls but there appear to be limits to his appeal. Though he is technically in first place among Republicans in the polls, he has yet to consistently break 20% in the crowded GOP field.
Many of the national polls, and even some early state polls, also don’t have a large sample size for Republicans – making it difficult to establish patterns within his support.
Both interviews of supporters at Trump’s events and polling data suggest his supporters are predominantly white and mainly motivated by the issue of illegal immigration, as well as disquiet about the economy.
Trump is more competitive than former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush among conservatives, according to polls. He garnered more support than Bush from older voters, according to a recent CNN poll. And a number of surveys have showed that he does very well among tea party backers.
His message seems to be resonating most with Republicans, according to a Fox News poll last week. In the Fox poll, 61% of independent voters said his message on immigration was wrong; compared to 36% who said it was right. Among Democrats, 72% said Trump’s views on the issue weren’t correct – illustrating a sharp partisan divide.
That stands in stark contrast to the group Nixon mobilized in the late 1960s. The former president asked for the support of the “silent majority” during a time of national upheaval, after a wave of major demonstrations against the Vietnam War and convulsive social change following the Civil Rights Movement.
Back then, said Bruce Cain, a professor of Political Science at Stanford University, Nixon was appealing to a broad cross section of voters – blue-collar workers, former veterans and “Archie Bunker-types,” he said – a group that became a precursor to the so-called “Reagan Democrats.”
“The sense Nixon had was that he was speaking for all those people who had served in the past, and who were getting pushed aside by the civil rights agenda, or being pushed aside by students and anti-war protesters,” Cain said. “So he was going to articulate their concerns.”
Nixon was right, Cain said, in the sense that there was “a large group of Italian, Irish, white, ethnic working class voters who felt that Democrats weren’t representing them anymore.” Beginning in the late 1960s through the early 1970s, “you had this transformation,” Cain said. “A lot of those areas (where those middle class voters lived) gradually became more and more Republican.”
By contrast, Trump has carved out a position on immigration that does not come close to representing the “center” of the country. And he has yet to demonstrate his appeal beyond a small vocal minority.
“He’s pretty much articulating views that are on the right of the (Republican) Party,” Cain said. “If he thinks that’s the majority view, all the data indicates otherwise…. He sees his numbers surging. He thinks that he’s tapped into a vein that hasn’t previously been tapped. But we’ve seen that before. And frankly, I think it’s fool’s gold.”
At the same time, Stanford Political Scientist and Hoover Institution fellow Morris Fiorina said, Trump is using a Nixon-like tactic by trying to appeal to the many disaffected voters in the country, who are not participating in the political process, and feel their views are being overlooked.
Particularly on immigration, “there are certain things that aren’t talked about in polite company – and Trump is tapping into that,” said Fiorina, who is not related to the presidential candidate Carly Fiorina.
But, he said, “Nixon really tapped into a big chunk of the population. My sense is Trump is tapping into a much smaller segment, but it’s the same kind of tactic.”
Over the long term, UCLA Political Science Professor Lynn Vavreck, who studied voter behavior during the 2012 presidential race in her book “The Gamble,” said it will be very difficult for Trump to maintain his upward momentum – particularly after the novelty of his candidacy and his provocations wears off.
“If the notoriety of the coverage of Trump declines, and he becomes one of many, then his share of the polls will go down,” Vavreck said. “That’s a robust pattern. We saw it for all the candidates in 2012…. Media coverage in the primary drives poll standing. “
Trump, she said, “likes the spotlight, so he is likely to continue every week to ten days to do something that is so notable that it does garner a significant amount of news coverage. The question is – what is the appetite, not only among the media, but among voters.”
CNN’s Jennifer Agiesta contributed to this report