Trump is drawing support from a constituency that in many ways resembles that amassed by another celebrity candidate who defied the usual political rules, Ross Perot in 1992. Like Perot, Trump runs better among whites than blacks, among men than women, among non-college graduates than college grads, in the suburbs and countryside than in big cities. Like Perot, he does not run especially strong among traditionally religious voters.
But there is one striking difference in their appeal. In November 1992 Perot won more than 20 percent among voters under 45 but only 12 percent among those 60 and over. Younger voters, perhaps less attached to parties than their elders, flocked to his side.
Donald Trump's appeal is strongest at the other end of the age spectrum. Recent Quinnipiac and CNN/ORC polls showed him with over 40 percent favorable ratings from voters 50 and over. But his favorable ratings among voters under 35 were only 25 and 28 percent, while 66 to 68 percent of them rated him unfavorably.
These young voters have had few years in which to build up party loyalty, and they have been switching around. In 2008 voters under 30 went 66 percent for Barack Obama. But the current Quinnipiac survey shows the under-35 set voting only an average of 51 percent for Hillary Clinton when matched against Republicans Jeb Bush, Marco Rubio and Donald Trump.
Many young people are apparently open to voting Republican -- but not for Trump. For the millennial generation, it appears, Donald Trump is yesterday's news.
Why should that be so? The best explanation I can come up with is that Trump's signature issues, the issues on which he has sparked controversy and attracted attention -- immigration and, often mentioned in the same breath, trade -- are issues that have been declining in importance in recent years.
They still animate older voters, who have been paying attention for some time. But for younger voters, they're yesterday's news.
Consider Mexican immigration and Trump's proposal -- best taken as an opening counter in a negotiation -- of forcing Mexico to somehow pay for construction of a fence on the southern border.
The fact is that net Mexican immigration since the 2007-2008 economic collapse has slowed to a trickle. Data compiled by the Pew Research Center, accepted as reasonably accurate by experts on all sides of the immigration debate, indicates that net migration from Mexico to the United States since 2007 has been zero. The numbers of illegal Mexican immigrants in the U.S. has declined from 6.9 million to 5.9 million.
Barely half of the country's illegals now are from Mexico, and in 2014, for the first time, more non-Mexicans than Mexicans were apprehended on the border. More immigrants now come from China and India than from Mexico.
Two of the Obama administration's actions regarding immigration have stirred outrage among Republicans: letting under-18 Central Americans be dispersed around the country last year; and putting forth a proposal, now blocked by a federal judge, to provide legal status not only to those brought over illegally as children but also to the parents who brought them over illegally. But these actions are not the focus of Trump's complaints.
Trump has also not focused on proposals that could reduce the illegal population, like requiring employers to use e-Verify or, as Chris Christie reasonably advocated, using FedEx-like tracking methods to identify the nearly half of illegals who have overstayed legal visas. Trump's focus instead is to stop a surge that is already over -- again, yesterday's news.
Similarly, Trump's complaints about trade agreements, reminiscent of Perot, ignore the fact that international trade has continued to decline since 2009. Higher Chinese labor costs and the perils of long supply chains have led firms to return manufacturing jobs -- onshoring -- in the United States.
Declining international trade is of course a mixed blessing, a symptom of stagnant economies here and abroad. But "the giant sucking sound" Perot decried is a thing of the past -- more of yesterday's news.
Trump's issues, still raging for older voters, don't seem to resonate with the young. And don't point to a way toward a Republican appeal to the electorate of the future.