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Donald Trump is the new Reagan.

Nearly all the GOP candidates try to style themselves as heirs to the Gipper, but Trump has an especially strong claim. As Nate Cohn notes in The New York Times, Trump’s bedrock supporters are “self-identified Republicans who nonetheless are registered as Democrats. It’s a coalition that’s concentrated in the South, Appalachia and the industrial North, according to data provided to The Upshot by Civis Analytics, a Democratic data firm.” 

This group sounds very much like the fabled “Reagan Democrats.” The fact that Reagan and Trump both appeal to older, less-educated, white Democrats is hardly an accident given their similar profiles as ideologically flexible politicians with roots in the entertainment industry. 

Reagan was a Democrat for much of his life, while Trump in the past has supported Democratic politicians (including Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama). On the key issue of abortion, both Reagan and Trump are chameleons, moving from pro-choice to the GOP’s anti-abortion party line. Their flip flops don’t seem to bother Republicans, while it makes Democrats who want to vote Republican feel more comfortable. 

Right-wing pundits like William Kristol frequently say Trump is not a real conservative. But the lesson of Reagan, who ran large deficits and negotiated with the Soviet Union, is that conservatism is more a matter of style than policy. Trump has learned that lesson well.