A question that comes up in political discussions is why Republican voters went for Trump. There are three main categories: Why did he win the primary? Why did he get so much institutional support as the nominee that he was able to become President? And why wasn’t his bigotry a dealbreaker?
The first part of the question is why enough primary voters went for Trump. Part of the reality is that primary voters are a small section of the electorate, so if Trump was able to get new people to the polls he would have a strong chance. And he did. In terms of sheer numbers, he had less support in the primary than Ross Perot had as a third party candidate in 1992, but it made much more of a difference. Trump was helped by a media that gave him more coverage than the other primary candidates combined. Individual Republican candidates probably engaged in poor strategy figuring that someone else will take him out, or that he’ll collapse on his own. A crowded field also limited the chance for anyone else to stand out, and for the race to be a binary choice. But it also seems clear that the voters were in the mood for an outsider, as evident by strong showings for Herman Cain in 2012 polls, and Ron Paul in earlier primaries. Polls also showed that voters wanted a general sense of fairness, believing that the candidate who got the most votes should get the nomination, which made it tougher for anyone to get support maneuvering against Trump on technicalities.
I’ll address briefly the racism, sexism and Islamophobia. There is a part of that in the Republican party, just because it is the party of the majority—in other words, the party supported by cis heterosexual white Christians. There will be bigots among the Republicans, just as there will be different types of weirdos among the Democrats (socialists, radical minorities, etc.) There’s also a larger sense among right-leaning voters that political correctness is going too far, and that we’re not able to discuss potential policy solutions because the elected officials and the commentators are afraid of left-wing pushback. When previous accusations are unmerited, it also inoculates the next case. If McCain is called racist, or Romney is called sexist for having “a binder full of women”—which in context was the exact type of policy initiative liberals and anyone who wants to reduce the gender gap would prefer powerful men to engage in—it becomes tougher to recognize that in Trump. Democratic campaign surrogates had cried wolf too many times in the past.
The last part is why the party stuck behind Trump as the nominee. There the answer is simple. He had a better chance of offering the policy initiatives they wanted than Hillary Clinton, who made no serious effort to assuage conservatives. I’ve heard the argument that she needed to be more explicit in her policy proposals than Obama who was able to get better turnout among progressives based on his background (they knew they could trust a younger African American community organizer/ law professor.) However, the message that Donald Trump posed an existential threat to the republic was undercut by the lack of any concessions from Democrats to get nervous Republicans on their side, to convince them that it wouldn’t represent a significant change in policy should the party get control of three branches of government. Maybe it was a gamble that would’ve worked in most cases, and that was worth it so as to avoid tying the hands of a Clinton administration. Except in this case, enough Republicans thought the devil they didn’t know was better than the devil they did.