Donald Trump

GOP presidential candidate Donald Trump addresses the Republican Jewish Coalition at the Ronald Reagan Building and International Trade Center on Thursday in Washington, D.C. (Photo: Alex Wong/Getty Images)

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Wall Street Journal

By Aaron Zitner and Dante Chinni
Dec. 4, 2015 – 6:38 p.m. ET

  • Celebrity businessman appeals to nonreligious voters who don’t believe politicians can get U.S. back on track

Donald Trump has built his leading position in the Republican primary race by bringing together an underappreciated segment of the GOP—blue-collar voters who aren’t especially animated by social issues—and who may be setting the stage for an unusual, three-person sprint to the nomination.

Mr. Trump’s appeal is a form of secular populism rarely seen in Republican primary races, and one he is pressing in part with appearances in working-class communities in Iowa that include independent voters and even Democrats who may be lured into the caucuses. The celebrity businessman’s message appears to resonate among voters who believe most strongly that political leaders are unable to put the nation back on track.

Past nominating contests have often boiled down to two-person races in which an establishment-backed front-runner beats a socially conservative candidate who appeals to working-class voters—a role Rick Santorum filled in 2012, as did Mike Huckabee in 2008 and Pat Buchanan in 1996.

Now, Mr. Trump appears to be opening a new, third lane in the GOP, drawing on a large share of voters who don’t have a college degree and don’t identify strongly with the party’s touchstone social issues, such as opposition to abortion rights and gay marriage.

That raises the prospect that the 2016 contest could narrow to a three-person race featuring the leading choice of social conservatives, the top pick of the party’s establishment wing of centrists and business-friendly Republicans—and Mr. Trump.

Polling shows the unusual nature of Mr. Trump’s coalition, which has kept him at the front of the pack in national and early-primary state polls far longer than any nontraditional candidate in 2012.

Often, a leading candidate dominates one of the Republican Party’s subgroups, such as social conservatives or budget hawks. But Mr. Trump is seen as an acceptable choice among many types of Republicans.

“He’s cutting across” many Republican segments, said GOP strategist David Winston.

The main quality that unites his supporters is “attitudinal,’’ said Mr. Winston, who advises the House and Senate leadership. Like a majority of Americans, Trump supporters think the nation has gone off track, but they are among the most frustrated that politicians are unable to find a solution.

“It’s opened up an avenue for people who want to hear a candidate say, ‘I want to do this, and I’ll do it no matter what,’ ” Mr. Winston said.

These voters care less about a candidate’s résumé or the nuances of policy than a promise to set a direction and follow through—as when Mr. Trump says he will stop illegal immigration by building a wall on the Southwestern border and make Mexico pay for it.

A Quinnipiac poll this week showed that Mr. Trump’s tone is more important to his supporters than are policy stances. He held a large lead of 10 points over his nearest opponent among Republicans who said the most important attribute for the party nominee is to be a “strong leader.” He has a much smaller lead, 4 points, among those who said “shared values” were most important.

Mr. Trump’s backers tend to be more working class than upper income, with a large share with no college education. In combined Journal/NBC News polling this year, Mr. Trump was the top choice of 25% of all GOP primary voters under age 50 who lack a college degree, but of only 13% with a college degree. The same split appeared among older voters: He won support from 23% with no college degree but only 15% of college graduates. No other candidate showed a similar skew.

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