The biggest differences between Republican primary voters and the general electorate
We look at some key demographics and beliefs in the Cooperative Election Study.
Tomorrow night, seven GOP candidates will debate in California. Their task is a complicated one: to set themselves apart from President Donald Trump while making themselves appealing to voters who largely still support him. To woo those Republican primary voters, these candidates may end up taking some positions that put them outside the mainstream of public opinion — which could hurt them if they wind up making it onto the general election ballot next year.
According to a 538 analysis, the people who vote in Republican primaries look very different demographically and think very differently than Americans as a whole when it comes to key political issues. We took a look at Cooperative Election Study data from Harvard University, a survey of at least 60,000 Americans on a range of issues taken before the 2020 elections and the 2022 midterms. We found that on key topics like immigration, abortion and government regulation, what GOP primary voters want is not the same as the country as a whole. That could box the ultimate Republican nominee into positions that are pretty unpopular with the general public.
GOP primary voters are whiter, older and more evangelical than Americans overall
The vast majority of Republican primary voters (92 percent) were white in 2020, the last presidential election year, compared to 69 percent of the general electorate, according to our analysis of the CES data. (Republican primary voters were those verified as active registered voters who voted in the Republican primary, while the general electorate refers to all respondents who were at least 18 years old. For more information on methodology, see the italicized section below.) They’re also older: Eighty-three percent was age 45 and older in 2020. That year, 45 percent of the general electorate was under 45 and 55 percent was 45 and over. There was a similarly sized difference between the Republican and general electorate in 2022.
Another demographic point hints at the different values shaping political views: Sixty percent of Republican primary voters identify as born-again or evangelical Christians, while only 34 percent of the general electorate does. It’s a group that has more traditional, conservative views on gender roles and marriage, among other issues, which helps explain the big differences we see on hot-button topics like abortion and LGBTQ+ rights.
These demographic differences mean that the group of voters choosing the Republican candidate have a completely different history, worldview and peer group from the generally younger and more diverse voters that could head to the polls in the November elections. That can shape the candidates’ views on a number of issues, from immigration to the future of the environment.
GOP voters are more anti-immigrant than Americans overall
Trump’s candidacy in 2016 was based, in part, on his anti-immigrant views, including his promise to build a wall on the southern border with Mexico. Immigration policy emerged as a major partisan split in that initial campaign, and Trump ran on the issue again in 2020. In the 2024 race, most of his leading opponents largely support his policies: continue building the border wall, spend more to secure the border and ban sanctuary cities.
Immigration remains a top issue for likely Republican primary voters, according to a recent FiveThirtyEight/Washington Post/Ipsos poll. But it’s also an issue where they differ a great deal from the general voting population, which means even if the candidates’ hardline stances are popular in the primary, the ultimate nominee may have to pivot in the general election.
In the last two cycles, Republican primary voters departed from the general electorate on almost every issue the survey asked about regarding immigration. (We used both 2020 and 2022 data in our analysis. The presidential election year in 2020 may be most similar to 2024 in terms of who votes and why, but we also looked at 2022 as a point of comparison because that data is more recent.) But the biggest gap was on the question of whether respondents supported increasing “spending on border security by $25 billion, including building a wall between the U.S. and Mexico.” In 2020, 89 percent of Republican primary voters supported that proposition, compared with 45 percent of the general electorate. (Two years later, there was a 39-percentage-point difference between the Republican and general electorate on this question.) Among the general electorate, a slim majority — 55 percent in 2020 and 51 percent in 2022 — opposed that policy. If anything, the voters who turned out in the last presidential year were more divided on this issue than those who voted in the midterms.
Republican primary voters were also much more likely to support increasing border patrols, withholding federal funds from police departments that don’t report immigration status to federal officials and reducing legal immigration. The differences in these issues ranged from 20 to 35 points. The general public was also much more likely to support a pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants, by 68 percent both years, while 62 and 64 percent of Republican primary voters opposed such a move in 2020 and 2022, respectively.
All of this means that there’s much more of an appetite for hard-line stances on immigration among GOP primary voters than among the public as a whole. It’s also something that Republicans just care more about: Immigration is a less salient issue for the electorate as a whole, with 9 percent ranking it as a top issue in a Center for Immigration Studies poll released in June. So while Republican voters might be prioritizing promises to curb immigration, the general electorate may be less motivated on the issue.
Republican primary voters are much less supportive of abortion rights
Since the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade in June 2022, abortion has emerged as a major issue for the general electorate, with abortion-rights supporters and the Democratic Party winning elections across the country. In this year’s primary, the GOP candidates have waffled so far on abortion and it’s not hard to see why — embracing positions that primary voters agree with could end up being a huge liability in the general election.
According to the 2020 CES data, only 16 percent of Republican primary voters said they support the proposal to “always allow a woman to obtain an abortion as a matter of choice,” compared with 56 percent of the general electorate, a 40-point difference. In 2022, there was a 39-point difference between the two groups. Republican primary voters were also more likely to say that abortion should be permitted only in the case of rape of incest, that all abortions should be banned after the 20th week of pregnancy, that employers should be allowed to decline abortion coverage in insurance plans and that federal funds shouldn’t be used in abortions.
So it’s not hard to see why Republican candidates are having trouble taking a stand on this issue — particularly since there actually isn’t a big divide when it comes to the restrictive abortion policies that more than 20 states have embraced since last summer. (Though some legislation remains tied up in courts.) In 2022, only 24 percent of Republican primary voters agreed that abortions should be illegal in all circumstances, just 7 points higher than the general public. That was down from 32 percent in 2020, and could mean that the near-total abortion bans in those states may be too extreme for even Republican voters.
Less government spending and control is a big issue for Republicans
During the 2020 election, then-President Trump called Democrats’ Medicare for All proposal “socialism.” Attacking universal health care as a Trojan horse of socialism has a long history in conservative American politics.
Health care may be less of a rallying cry in 2024, but the idea of expanding Medicare remains a dividing line, and that may be in part because it can serve as a proxy issue for different ideas in how big the government should be. The Republican Party passed a resolution denouncing socialism earlier this year, after Republicans won a majority in the House of Representatives. That suggests that socialism and big government in general will remain a line of attack against Democrats and their likely nominee, President Joe Biden — but that’s a position that will resonate much more with Republican primary voters than the public as a whole. A solid majority, 68 percent, of the general public supported the idea of expanding Medicare into a single comprehensive public health program in 2022, 46 points more than Republican primary voters. That’s similar to the gap from 2020, which was 49 points.
Suspicion of government regulation shows up in other places, too. Republican primary voters view environmental regulation with more skepticism than the general public does. There was a nearly 40-point gap in support for issues such as giving the Environmental Protection Agency the power to regulate carbon emissions, giving the agency more power to enforce the Clean Water and Clean Air acts, and requiring states to use a minimum amount of renewable energy in 2022. Those gaps were similar in 2020.
Republicans haven’t changed their views on climate change much in the past decade, even as most adults started to see it as a major threat, according to the Pew Research Center. (The CES doesn’t ask this question directly.) Fifty-four percent of all adults think climate change is a major threat, while only 23 percent of Republicans and Republican-leaning adults do, according to Pew’s figures published in August. That’s especially true of young voters: Fifty-nine percent of voters under the age of 30 think addressing climate change should be a priority, according to an NPR/Marist poll from July.
Republican voters seem to care more about whether a candidate shares the same views than whether they’re electable, which means they’re likely to be evaluating the primary race on these issues. Because of those pressures, the primary can steer the candidates further and further from the mainstream.
The Cooperative Election Survey is administered by YouGov and consists of a nationally representative sample of American adults. The 2020 pre-election survey included 61,000 adults (referred to as the general electorate above), of which 3,593 were considered Republican primary voters. The 2022 pre-election survey included 60,000 adults, of which 4,121 were considered Republican primary voters.
The general electorate was the broadest group of adult Americans: all adults aged 18 or older, regardless of their status as active registered voters. If we limited our analysis only to those who were active voters at the time of the survey, the analysis might not be representative of the broader general electorate that is currently eligible to vote, as an individual’s status as an active registered voter can easily change. We compared adult Americans to voter-validated electorates from the last two elections and found that opinions were fairly similar across all groups. Republican primary voters consisted of respondents who the CES verified as active registered voters who voted in the Republican primary, according to Catalist (2020) or TargetSmart (2022) records. For 2020, we included respondents who voted specifically in the presidential primary, as some states hold those primaries separately from their state or federal primaries.