Why Has Donald Trump Lost So Much Conservative Support?

Donald Trump has lost the support of many conservatives, a problem that may be explained by his lack of conscientiousness. This trait is more characteristic of conservatives than liberals, which makes it a critical trait for conservative candidates. In the case of Trump, a lack of conscientiousness has likely repelled conservative voters who would otherwise vote Republican in the presidential election. Nevertheless, Trump maintains some support among conservatives, and this support may arise from his right-wing authoritarianism and social dominance orientation.


Trump is not only losing, but losing by a large margin, an indication that he is not only unpopular among moderates, but also among a fair share of conservatives. This lack of conservative support is evident in some solidly right-wing states. In South Carolina, for instance, where 43% of people identify as conservative, and Georgia, where 40% do so, the conservative candidate usually wins. However, Trump is likely to win these two states by small margins.

Why is the Trump campaign hemorrhaging conservative voters in the US, who have not been this skeptical of a Republican Party candidate since Barry Goldwater? A number of factors play into his unpopularity, and while psychological research on conservatives cannot tell us about all of them, it can explain at least one.

Trump does not appear to be conscientious. Conscientiousness is one of the “Big Five” personality traits. Each personality trait in this set of five is considered big because it compasses smaller facets, and in the case of conscientiousness, these smaller facets are conventionality, reliability, industriousness, order, impulse control, and virtue (Roberts, Chernyshenko, Stark, & Goldberg, 2005). (Virtue, in this case, refers to the belief that one should be honest, moral, and charitable.) Everyone is conscientious to some degree, but there is enough variability that some people are markedly conscientious while others are markedly impulsive, unconventional, unreliable, and so on.

Political psychologists have found that conscientiousness differentiates conservatives from liberals, with conservatives (on average) being higher in conscientiousness. To make this less abstract, consider a study by Dana Carney and colleagues (Carney, Jost, Gosling, & Potter, 2008) of the dorm rooms and offices of conservatives and liberals. On average, a conservative person was likely to have these things in their space: an event calendar, a book of postage stamps, sewing thread, an iron, an ironing board, and a laundry basket. Coders who were hired to examine photographs of these spaces also rated conservatives’ spaces, on average, as more well-lit, fresh, neat, and clean. These are obvious manifestations of industriousness, order, and impulse control.

The majority of studies on politics and personality have found results linking conscientiousness with political conservatism, but the correlation is small, so many conservatives and liberals are similarly conscientious (Sibley et al., 2012).

However, the small difference still matters. In the illustration, think of the left, darkly shaded hump as liberals and the right, light blue hump as conservatives, with the dark green representing where liberals and conservatives overlap. Conscientiousness is on the X-axis, meaning that negative numbers indicate how much less conscientious someone is compared to the average person while positive numbers indicate how much more conscientious someone is compared to the average person. Despite the overlap, it’s evident that as you move to the left on this axis, the proportion of liberals to conservatives (dark blue to light blue) gradually favors liberals. At the tip you find a small range of people extremely low in conscientiousness, all of whom are likely liberal.


Normal curve